Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Foreign Policy and practices as an adjunct to National Policy: The Indian context

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Debnath Shaw
    Venue: National Institute of Technology (NIT), Meghalaya
    Date: April 01, 2017

Hon. Director (I/C), Dr. S.B. Singh,
Distinguished Faculty Members,
Students of NIT,


It is my honour and pleasure to be here on the occasion of the Second Anniversary of the NIT, Meghalaya to deliver the Distinguished Lecture, a series of talks on foreign and security policy issues established by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in partnership with universities and higher learning institutes all over India. Through this initiative the MEA seeks to demystify foreign policy formulation and implementation and bring this subject to the doorstep of all citizens, emphasizing its connect with national aspirations and goals.

Foreign policy formulation is not new. It is not an exercise that is done mysteriously and secretively and it certainly reflects the will of the people of the country. National interest has and will always be the basis of the foreign policy of any country. India is no different. This brings me to the topic of today's lecture that in the Indian context, Foreign Policy is an extension or adjunct of its National Policy.

Seventy years ago, in a remarkable experiment in democracy and nation building, India, an economically impoverished, continent-sized, vastly diverse nation, resolved to meet its tryst with destiny on the basis of democratic values, secularism, inclusive nationalism and internationalism. (1)

Determinants of Foreign Policy

The foreign policy of a country is conceived, designed and formulated to safeguard and promote its national interests, in the conduct of its relations with other countries, bilaterally and multilaterally. It is the reflection of a country's traditional values and overall national policies, her aspirations and self perception. In the Indian context, the aim and objectives of the foreign policy of India is that of an independent, developing and democratic country, to safeguard and promote its national interests and to aid and enable India's developmental processes through positive and proactive external engagement. Foreign policy in India is geared to be a facilitator of economic development and an instrument to ensure security from external threats so as to bring prosperity to the people of India. Indian foreign policy seeks to leverage international relationships in enhancing trade and investment, in assisting infrastructure development, technology transfers to boost our manufacturing capabilities and establish peace and tranquility in the region. (2)

Economically buoyant India's centrality in the Asia-Pacific region, its energy demands, urge to improve relations with its immediate and strategic neighbourhood and to be a part of their development process, the need to support its ever increasing diaspora around the world, and our growing role in multilateral groups are some of the other driving factors of Indian foreign policy.

In its Annual Report for 2015-16, the Ministry of External Affairs states, "Probably the most significant trend during the year was the increased emphasis placed by government in establishing close linkages between our foreign policy and our democratic developmental aspirations.” (3) India’s international outreach has been carefully tailored and directed to create the most propitious climate for domestic growth, including by working towards a regional security environment that allows India to focus on its developmental goals.

Effect of domestic politics on foreign policy decision making

In the 21st century, decisions by one state affect more than just the participating countries. Scholars, policy analysts and even the general public have a greater desire to understand foreign policy decisions and what motivates the head of government in his foreign policy decision making. (4)

Foreign policies are determined by the head of government with the aim of achieving complex domestic and international agendas. It usually involves an elaborate series of steps where domestic politics plays an important role. Such policies in most cases are designed through coalitions of domestic and international actors and groups.

Factors that influence the head of government in deciding on such policies are his own personality, degree of rationality, domestic policies and international and domestic interest groups. Of all these factors, the domestic political environment is numero uno in the decision making process, even in the international context. Later, we will examine these determinants in the context of the current Head of Government of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Main factors that influence India's foreign policy formulation are its geographical location and situation, economic and resources requirements, defence strategy and requirements, oral or written commitments with other nations in the recent past, contemporary world events, ideology and India's political system. It is obvious that most of these factors are among the important inputs for the country's national policy formulation and practices.

Geographical Situation


Geography includes location, size, topography, state boundaries, population, climate and hydrography. All these elements are important in varying degrees for Indian national politics and foreign policy. In the Indian context, its location, size and the three state boundaries, namely the Himalayan frontier, the Indian Ocean and India-Pakistan and India-China frontiers, play an important role in shaping national and foreign policy. Despite considerable political effort, India has not yet succeeded in obtaining defined and mutually accepted boundaries with either China or Pakistan.

Geographically, we are located in the South Asian region known for its low development levels and poor quality of life for the vast majority of its peoples. We are also situated in what is acknowledged as the arc of global and regional terrorist activities. India’s developmental goals have had to take into account these two influencing factors. India cannot enjoy the fruits of growth if its immediate South Asian neighbours remain mired in poverty and lack of growth. Hence, our development goals have had to factor in simultaneous opportunities for development of its neighbours. We need to provide our neighbours, as needed and desired, in the form of resources, equipment and training. Greater connectivity and integration so as to improve the free flow of goods and services, people, energy, capital and information are also essential for the mutual benefit of India and her neighbours. We are required to promote a form of India-led regionalism with which its neighbours are comfortable. In other words, we cannot grow in isolation. We have to take along our immediate neighbours on the road towards growth and prosperity. A relevant example for Meghalaya and this part of the country is the need for Bangladesh to achieve minimum levels of development so that it reduces out migration from that country primarily to India, which creates major political, social and economic difficulties in our country.

The issue of terrorism emanating in our neighbourhood and its effect on our national security and development is more complicated, since its elimination is dependent not only on India's actions alone, but also the will of the international community. Nevertheless, the scourge of terrorism and its attendant violence is drag on our national prosperity goals and needs to be tackled both through internal security and external diplomatic measures.

Economic and Technological Developments

India is the world's second most populous country, the world's most populous democracy and the fastest growing major economy. With the world's fifth largest economy by nominal rates, the third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, the third largest technological manpower pool, and the third largest armed force, India is a regional power and a nascent global power. It has a growing international influence and a prominent voice in global affairs, including in international economic affairs.

In the post-Cold War era, India soon realized the need to develop a pragmatic and wide-ranging international relationships based on our fundamental principle of having an independent foreign policy position on most issues, based on national interests, without having to tilt towards one or the other 'camp' or coalition of forces.

Economic reforms in India since the early 1990s and our integration in the globalization context has given India much flexibility in shaping its independent foreign policy. Nevertheless our large population, high poverty levels and failure to utilize our technology manpower pool to achieve shop floor successes, has made India dependent on big powers for capital, technology and military hardware. Countries like the US, Russia, UK, France, Germany and Japan have played a dominant role in global politics largely due to their superior technological capabilities. Smaller countries like Israel and South Korea, and to an extent China, have an edge over India due to better utilization of their own technological developments for economic growth and exports, in the post World War II era. I am today at an institute which nurtures some of the brightest technology talent in our country. My appeal to all faculty and students at NIT, Meghalaya and to all our technology incubators in general, is for the urgent need to develop technology prowess within the country so as to make India less dependent on such transfers from abroad. Such a changed situation will provide greater flexibility in our foreign policy postures and lead to greater national growth.

Abundant natural resources with enabling technology to convert such resources into national power is the ideal situation any country would like to find itself in. India is blessed with an abundance of various types of resources, except hydrocarbon energy sources. We need to develop the technology for such conversion without being overly dependent on others.

Defence Needs and Strategy

We are witnessing a dramatic shift in the locus of global power with relative decline of the United States and the spectacular rise of China. The rise of China and India will alter the geopolitical landscape and the nature of the global system in the coming two decades. (5) Despite growing economic interdependency between China and the United States, trends suggest a potential for great power conflict in the Asia-Pacific region which will have consequences for our security. India's enhancement of power and influence should continue to be for the defence of our sovereignty, territorial integrity and promotion of global peace.

Indigenous development and manufacturing of defence equipment is weak. Therefore, the Government has had to focus on defence preparedness through proactive strategic dialogues with key partners, like Russia, France, USA, Israel, UK, Italy, etc,. India has been working together with these partners to acquire and develop modern defence platforms for the armed forces.

In the context of nuclear weapons, India has strictly adhered to all anti-nuclear proliferation measures, though it has not signed the NPT, because the latter is discriminatory towards states which were not declared as nuclear weapons states under the Treaty. India has always supported global nuclear disarmament. The Indian nuclear weapon programme is purely a self-defence measure given the security and strategic situation in our neighbourhood. We have pledged non-first use of our nuclear weapons and not to use them against non-nuclear states.

The Indian defence forces and our diplomatic apparatus are manifestations of our national purpose of defence and development.

Political System and Traditions

Historically, Indian leaders have demonstrated their ability to combine strength with humility and power with purpose. Our strengths are derived from history, culture, people and our democratic institutions. India's commitment to world peace, anti-colonial struggle, opposition to racism, commitment to democracy, secularism and peaceful coexistence, etc, are certain philosophical values that emerged during the freedom struggle.

While focusing diplomacy to support our domestic development, India also continues its policy of sharing its developmental lessons with the rest of the developing world. This south-south cooperation arose from our post-independence policy of solidarity with the people and freedom movements of Asia and Africa in their fight against imperialism and colonialism.

The political structure and form of government have an important influence on its approach to international relations. Being the largest democracy and having a parliamentary form of government, foreign policy making is based on debate and discussions in parliament and through the media. In recent years, think tanks and NGOs have also contributed to this process.

Foreign Policy Record under NDA Government

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over the reigns of the Government in May 2014. In an unconventional act of diplomacy, among his first decisions as head of government was the invitation extended to eight foreign leaders of neighbouring countries to attend the inauguration. (6) Far from being a foreign policy novice, by this one act, the Indian head of state signaled his intention to make good neighbourly relations as the fountainhead of his foreign and international policy. He has followed it through. Within his first year, Modi had embarked on state visits to India's immediate neighbourhood, under an articulated policy of 'Neighbourhood First'. Before the end of his second year in office, the Prime Minister had visited all South Asian countries.

Through regular exchanges and a willingness to take bold decisions, progress was seen in our relationship with every neighbouring country, despite the setbacks with Pakistan caused by occasional outbursts of terrorist activities on our soil emanating from across the border. A historic boundary agreement with Bangladesh brought new hope not only to the lives of people living in enclaves on either side of the border, but to the overall confidence and trust levels between the two countries. The earthquake in Nepal saw India establish its role as a responsible provider of emergency relief and long-term reconstruction in the region. Relations with Sri Lanka became progressively warmer and more substantive as we continued engaging with the new Government of President Sirisena. For the first time, India outlined a comprehensive vision for the Indian Ocean region focused on security and growth for all the littoral states, and promised to use growing Indian capacities to address shared threats like piracy, smuggling, environmental degradation and natural disasters in the Indian Ocean. (7)

Modi can also be credited for his outreach to the United States and Israel, way further than that attempted by any of his predecessors. The Indian Prime Minister can also be credited with two very focused strategies under 'Neighbourhood First' and 'Act East', the latter being an avatar of the more generalised 'Look East' policy initiated by PM Narasimha Rao in the 1990s to reach out to our neighbourhood to the east, comprising all the ASEAN member countries, Japan, ROK, Mongolia, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island countries. Some analysts have rated Modi's foreign policy initiatives as bold and having secured a better understanding and respect for India in the community of nations. Other critics have described his initiatives variously as "vacuous”, "showmanship over substance” and "bullying and poor imagination for bad relations with its neighbours”. (8)

Despite some obvious deficiencies, overall this government's foreign policy priorities have resulted in giving shape and substance to the regime's focused programmes in the country such as 'Make in India', 'Smart Cities', 'Skill India', and 'Digital India'. Our interactions with countries like the USA, Japan, China, UK, Germany, France, Russia, Korea, UAE, Malaysia and Singapore have showcased the favourable investment climate being created in India. This proactive outreach has resulted in significant increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows over the last two years. The USA has agreed to participate in the transformation of three cities – Vishakhapatnam, Allahabad and Ajmer under the Smart Cities project. France has committed over 2 billion Euros for investment in Indian smart cities with special focus on Chandigarh, Nagpur and Puducherry. City partnerships were signed with UK in respect of Indore, Pune and Amravati. Germany has promised an investment of 360 million Euros in developing 3 smart cities. China, Malaysia and Singapore have also shown concrete interest in partnering India for development of modern urban infrastructure in the coming years. (9)

USA, Canada, Germany, UK, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to bring investments as also their best practices for training young Indians for tomorrow''s industries under the government's Skill India programme. Through diplomatic outreach to countries like Germany, UK and Japan and the Prime Minister's visit to the Silicon Valley in USA, major investment commitments in India have been made by companies like Microsoft, Qualcomm and Google in bridging the divide under Digital India programme. The railways sector is also receiving proven technologies and competence from countries with such inputs. All these examples go to show the extent India's flagship prorammes are being driven by external commitments, resulting from our diplomatic initiatives, including the personal outreach of the Prime Minister.

Delivery of consular, visa and humanitarian services to Indian nationals and PIOs abroad is another focus area of this government. External Affairs Minister, Smt. Sushma Swaraj is a globally recognized cyber star for her role in using social media to reach out to our brothers and sisters in distress abroad, and in arranging concrete measure for their alleviation. India's evacuation measures in Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Yemen in the last couple of years has not only been appreciated by several thousand Indian nationals rescued from deteriorating local environment, but also by over 2000 thankful third country nationals, including from neighhbouring countries in South Asia, who too were rescued along with the Indians. Passport services within the country which used to be such a painful and slow service until a few years ago, is today a one week affair for the vast majority of applicants. All these policy initiatives shows the direct connect between foreign policy application and the people of the country. .

Another unique effort of this government has been the increasing involvement of State Governments in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. Recognising that States have a crucial role to play, particularly in the success of commercial and cultural diplomacy, a States Division was created in the Ministry of External Affairs in 2014. It has proactively reached out to all State Governments helping them in identifying their target countries and regions for commercial, cultural, academic, tourism and diaspora outreach, and in fashioning appropriate strategies for maximizing the gains from international interaction. (10) Indian Foreign Service officers today spend substantial quality time in States as part of their training schedules, right from entry level till the last stages of their career as Ambassadors and High Commissioners accredited to countries abroad. Similar to the initiative with State Governments, my presence here today at NIT, Meghalaya is a manifestation of the effort made to bridge the past disconnect between the foreign policy formulation and implementation and the people on the ground, whom it effects directly and indirectly.

These facts embellishes the topic of this lecture that foreign policy is a part and parcel of our national policy and that its implementation has a direct bearing on the lives and livelihood of our people. Foreign policy is not an abstract subject to be placed on a high pedestal and left in the hands of few experts in their ivory towers. Like national policies such as education and job quotas, gender equality, pollution control and environmental degradation, GST, etc, foreign policy issues such as sharing of river waters, development partnership with countries in Africa and Asia, work permits for foreign workers, equivalence of degrees, etc, which have a direct bearing on the lives of citizens need to be discussed, debated and understood in Parliament and outside. Of course, there are some sensitive issues which have to negotiated away from public gaze, or else no foreign government will take our government seriously if such issues are disclosed on a public platform prior to their finalization. Like with national policies, most foreign policy issues can and should have inputs from the public before finalization barring a few exceptions.

It has been my endeavour today to explain in simple and logical language the role of national policies in the making of foreign policy of India. As a vibrant democracy, the success of such policy directions can be ensured if peoples’ participation is maximized in such an exercise. It is my hope that each one of you present here will henceforth become an active participant in the foreign policy debate in India.

Thank you for your patience in sitting through this lecture.

Dhanyavad! KHUBLEI SHIBON! Shukria!