The roots of Indian foreign policy

January 27, 2019

The main premise of the book is that the core of Indian diplomatic practice is to be found in the national epic, Mahabharata. How far is it true?

The roots of Indian foreign policy

Sir Harold Nicolson, the famous British diplomat of the early 20th century, came up with 16 qualities (popularly known as Nicolson test) an ideal western diplomat should possess: truthfulness, precision, calm, patience, good temper, modesty, loyalty, intelligence, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, charm, industry, courage and tact.

It is a very useful list. But it is difficult to find all these impressive qualities in one person. Shivshankar Menon, former Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser when lecturing probationer diplomats, drew upon the first seven of these qualities -- truthfulness, precision, calm, patience, good temper, modesty and loyalty -- and combined them with four other qualities (which he sources from Indian epic Mahabharata): credibility, empathy, high personal reputation and knowing everyone.

In his book The Making of Indian Diplomacy -- A Critique of Euro-centrism, Deep K. Datta-Ray has traced the non-Western roots of an independent Indian foreign policy pursued since 1947. Datta-Ray, an academic who teaches at Jindal School of International Affairs in India, is the only outsider to have embedded in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

He studied in Calcutta, Honolulu, Singapore before attending School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and King’s College in London. He earned his doctorate in International Relations from the University of Sussex in United Kingdom.

Based on his interaction and interviews with prime minister, cabinet ministers, foreign secretary, national security adviser and nearly 70 civil servants, mostly diplomats at all levels, during 13 months spent at MEA, Datta-Ray has examined the functioning of the Indian foreign ministry. The origin of MEA can be traced to the British, who set up the Indian Foreign Department in 1783 to carry on business with foreign European powers. Currently, the strength of the diplomatic staff in MEA is slightly less than 800.

After independence, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru initially turned to princes and royal rulers who were recruited in the diplomatic service to provide "psychological and political rehabilitation to erstwhile rulers". By 1955, however, Nehru was disappointed by the performance of the royals and instructed that they should be sent to unimportant capitals only. Nehru also relied on his own family members -- sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and nephews R.K. Nehru and B.K. Nehru -- both ICS officers -- who were assigned important diplomatic posts.

Nehru, according to Datta-Ray, was not very impressed by ICS officers whom he used as draftsmen only and was thus himself the architect of Indian foreign policy after independence. In the initial decades, Indian Foreign Service used to be the first preference of candidates who achieved the highest positions in India’s central competitive examinations. After 1976, those who topped the exams stopped opting for the diplomatic service and preferred joining Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service or Indian Revenue Service.

The author observes that the quality of intake in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has declined a lot in the last few decades. The process of decline started in 1979 when candidates were allowed to write the competitive exams in local and regional languages instead of English. After 1992, candidates belonging to reserved seats category increased.

The process of decline started in 1979 when candidates were allowed to write the competitive exams in local and regional languages instead of English.

All these steps made diplomatic service more representational but at the same time the quality of intake suffered as IFS transitioned from repository of royals to city elites and is now increasingly dominated by people from regions. For decades, candidates joined IFS to achieve status but now candidates opt for IFS to become a part of the society rather than to differentiate themselves from it.

Although some of these trends can also be detected in Pakistan’s Foreign Service during the last four decades, one interesting fact is that India has seen three women foreign secretaries during the last two decades: Chokila Iyer (2001-02), Nirupama Rao (2009-11) and Sujatha Singh (2013-15). In comparison, Pakistan’s incumbent foreign secretary is the first woman to hold this position.

Datta-Ray rightly credits Dr Manmohan Singh, an eminent economist who was nominated prime minister by the Congress Party in 2004, for calibrating and steering Indian foreign policy towards economic diplomacy. Dr Singh, however, quoted Nehru while signalling this significant move: "foreign policies are not just empty struggles on a chessboard… Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy".

The most important section of the book deals with what the author describes as the two watershed moments in modern Indian diplomacy: India’s vote against Iran at International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005 and India’s signing of civil nuclear agreement with the US in 2007. India voted against Iran to signal to Washington that it is ready to fall in line but continued to maintain good relations with Iran by negotiating innovative solutions to circumvent US sanctions. More importantly, Delhi sought out Washington to sign a path-breaking agreement and become part of the global value chain of knowledge economy.

Just as China had become the manufacturing factory of the world, India tried to replicate this model by opting for technology instead of manufacturing. In its strategic calculus, India’s purpose was to become Research and Development (R&D) hub and the nuclear deal gave it access to previously denied technologies which underpinned India’s emerging knowledge economy.

India’s economist premier had calculated that, with low labour costs in technology, India would be able to undercut the West and more importantly technology, compared to manufactured goods, would be far more resistant to market fluctuations, thus enabling Delhi to pull millions out of poverty.

The main premise of the book is that the core of Indian diplomatic practice is to be found in the national epic, Mahabharata, whose influence is traced from pre-Mughal times to the present. The epic inspired Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha or terminating violence non-violently. The author argues that Gandhi’s influence over Nehru ensured that Satyagraha would shape the new post-colonial nation’s diplomacy.

Datta-Ray’s book is academic and unconvincing when it comes to its main premise about Satyagraha being the main determinant of Indian diplomacy. The concept of Gandhi being the apostle of non-violence is also problematic as he abandoned the prescription of non-violence during the Kashmir war in 1947 -- a few months before his own death. It is ironical that Gandhi who had been lavish with his advice to Britons, Frenchmen, Czechs, Poles, Jews to lay down their arms and surrender to injustices of Hitler during the Second World War ignored the advice of non-violence during the Kashmir war in 1947.

In a blistering article on Gandhi, titled Mahatma Gandhi -- Yogi and Commissar, published in The Sunday Times in 1969 on the occasion of his centenary birthday, Arthur Koestler, noted British-Hungarian author and intellectual, candidly wrote about this particular contradictory aspect during the Kashmir war and wryly commented: "As on earlier critical occasions, when the lofty ideal clashed with hard reality, realism carried the day and the Yogi succumbed to the Commissar."

Koestler further wrote that the armed conflicts with Pakistan and China produced outbreaks of chauvinism and mass hysteria which suggested that the Mahatma’s pacifist apostolate had hardly left any tangible effects.

Moreover, brutal suppression of Kashmiris, violence in Punjab, Assam and Nagaland, military intervention in East Pakistan in 1971 and Sri Lanka in 1987, and annexation of Sikkim in 1975 clearly shows that non-violence or Satyagraha is not the bedrock of Indian domestic or foreign policy.

The Making of Indian Diplomacy -- A Critique of Euro-Centrism
Author: Deep K. Datta-Ray
Publisher: Oxford University Press, India
Year: 2015
Pages: 380

The roots of Indian foreign policy