BY MUHSIN & MUFSIN PUTHAN PURAYIL
India has been witnessing tremendous disruptions in its domestic politics in the past few months. The domestic political churning has triggered an unanticipated degree of international controversies and attention. As a result, India’s foreign policy is in a tailspin. The domestic turmoil at the moment is not only reshaping the country’s foreign policy but also causing an inordinate impact on the trajectory of India’s international affairs. Simultaneously, this has also engendered a stronger sense of the importance of diplomacy in dealing with the situation like never before.
A scenario has emerged where India’s focus on domestic priorities is now pushing its international relations to the back burner. This mainly stems from the incongruence between what is expected of India as a responsible power at the global political stage and recent policy developments such as the Citizenship Law, Kashmir and Delhi’s communal riots in the domestic politics of the country.
While a few months is too short a time to make conclusive affirmations of continuity, with more controversial policies – such as a countrywide National Register of Citizens (NRC), Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and plans for building detention centres for ‘illegal migrants’ (those who fail to prove their citizenship) – in the pipeline, domestic contingencies will only continue to mount. Indeed, in the absence of a course correction, this can unleash a Pandora’s Box of complications and have serious implications for India’s foreign affairs.
A central issue in India’s diplomacy at present is the disjuncture between the soft power resources it employs as a foreign policy tool and how they are being held in the sphere of domestic governance. This disconnect is taking place as the building and projection of India’s image in the international arena is being increasingly distanced as a separate activity done by professionals and not really as a seamless practice of social life, closely knit-together by governance, politics, and policymaking in the country’s domestic arena.
For instance, when India is riding on its soft power by projecting the values of pluralism, inclusivity, and multiculturalism as the country’s strengths and the base of its policy vision on the global stage, growing religious intolerance, declining freedom, internet shutdowns and attacks on minorities in the sphere of domestic politics stands in complete contrast.
This sharp disconnect is one of the major reasons for India’s faltering strategic narrative and the resultant loss of credibility, that is difficult to repair in the short term. That is, while a host of issues such as economic slowdown, communal violence, constraints on freedom and alleged human rights violations are putting a dent on India’s international image, the country appears to be lacking convincing counter-narratives and universally acceptable strategic narratives that resonate well in the comity of nations. Strategic narratives are essentially presentable narratives of aspirations and vision for the future through a shared present and the past. They are aimed at shaping and influencing the perception of the foreign audience.
India’s domestic troubles from recent policies are going to be considerable in undermining India’s soft power and altering its national identity. India has, over the years, accumulated a wealth of international goodwill and status as a peaceful rising superpower in the world. And India’s diplomatic tradition of non-alignment, stable economy and vibrant democracy have provided a formidable foundation for the country’s national identity and, at the same time, act as a tool of soft power diplomacy. Needless to say, this national identity has been at the forefront of India’s successful projection of national interests as legitimate in the international arena. However, the current scenario anticipates significant strategic and foreign policy implications for India’s global ambitions.
Finally, India’s attempts to deal with the mounting diplomatic challenges, unfortunately, appear to be that of an impulse-driven confrontational approach. The government has failed to do any damage control when it chose to pursue confrontation and diplomatic offensives. For instance, calling for a domestic boycott of palm oil imports from Malaysia against the Malaysian prime minister’s criticism of India’s actions in Kashmir and its new citizenship law, and cancellation of a meeting with US lawmakers and denial of Labour Party MP Debbie Abraham’s entry into the country, for their criticism of Kashmir policy, are only going to be counterproductive in redeeming the situation. Coupled with the recent series of events in the country, this lends credence to the view that there is a larger erosion of liberal democratic values of intellectual engagement and dialogue with the opposed political and ideological point of view.
The inevitable result has been the denuding credibility of India’s stance that international criticism is merely unnecessary interference in the internal matters of the country. Continuing criticism from countries – the latest being Iran, with whom India maintains cordial relations – despite India’s diplomatic outreach is indicative of this. In such a context, India must understand that international relations are mainly a realist realm of dissent and disagreements. Therefore, it should not allow the impulse to guide actions. Instead, judicious examination of policy consequences and effective dialogue and communication to resolve differences must be employed as diplomatic options.
In sum, if nothing else, all of this shows how desperately India needs a new direction that envisages a long term strategy and vision. While the ‘new’ image of India is not auguring well for the country at this juncture, one can only speculate how much damage this has done to India’s diplomacy and its ability to build relationships over trust and legitimacy. A host of factors such as competing domestic priorities, confused national vision, misguided assumptions, and diplomatic missteps have given rise to the current foreign policy conundrum. And it will continue to push India’s foreign policy astray until a major reassessment and course correction of India’s approach to domestic policies takes place.
Therefore, what is important is to take serious cognizance of the centrality of image building and the need for favourable international public opinion to maintain and augment India’s global credentials to enable India to play a larger global role.
(The writers are Ph.D. candidates in Political Science at the University of Hyderabad, and in Public Policy and Management at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. They can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected])
(South Asia Monitor)