M.L. Sondhi

The Tribune, August 15, 1978

In an interview to the B.B.C. in London the External Affairs Minister Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, has said that the Belgrade non-aligned Foreign Ministers’ conference held last month had made it clear that the task of the non-aligned movement was to strive for (a) world peace (b) a new economic order and above all, (c) for disarmament, by keeping aloof from both the power blocs.  These are by no means new dimensions in Indian political thinking.

Ever since 1947 Indians have been aware of the adverse effects of the hegemonic influences of the two power blocs.  Traditionally, Indians have a deep-seated aversion to ideological fanaticism and, therefore, India’s international proposals have been based on the idea of ideological co-existence.  As part of its world wide responsibilities India has striven for a permanent dialogue among the developing countries of the Third World in order to develop a new global perspective in which military confrontations are replaced by international cooperation for the transformation of the Third World. 

The comparatively new problem faced by the Janata Government in foreign policy was the coordination of our bilateral relations with our neighbouring countries.  The Prime Minister, Mr. Desai, and the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Vajpayee, laid down some guidelines which included a marked stress on political equality, a willingness for further negotiations in outstanding matters, and a resolve to refrain from unilateral actions in the interests of good neighbourliness.  This was all to the good and observers noticed that the prospects for an improvement in India’s relations with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka brightened as the atmosphere of distrust and aloofness dissolved to talks between India and each of these countries.

Newspaper headlines and photographs of smiling foreign ministers were, however, deceptive in as much as it was not possible to eradicate the sources of long-standing disputes without careful follow-up action.  Besides, the Ministry of External Affairs should have reflected deeply on the transformation in the international environment facing India and analysed the problems of adjustment in a multilateral framework.

Global issues

By his visits to the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. Mr. Desai gave the highest-level attention to India’s relationship with the two super powers.  Even the new declarations on Indo-Soviet and Indo-American relations, assuring India of political goodwill, were in line with the tradition of Indian diplomacy, although the desire for self-expression was defined as “genuine” non-alignment.  This, again, is not the main task of management of Indian foreign policy because India by herself cannot enjoy much leverage with either of the super powers in a world where there are elements of both Soviet-US rivalry and Soviet-US condominium.

If Indian diplomacy is to retain the much-needed flexibility, Indian decision-making must be related to a wide range of global issues.  Unfortunately it is this global character of diplomatic negotiations which appears to have been consistently ignored by the Ministry of External Affairs in the last year and a half since the Janata administration came into power.  By making concessions to the neighbouring countries Delhi has got bogged down in her talks with Islamabad, Dacca and Kathmandu because the Ministry of External Affairs underestimated the importance of power politics at the international level.

In my opinion the Janata Government could have profited from the transformation of the international environment if it had directed the Ministry of External Affairs to engage in policy planning for “long-term negotiations” with the multiple power centres in the world.  India should avoid the straightjacket of sub-continental politics and also the straightjacket of super-power politics.

To avoid misunderstanding I should add that I entirely agree that it is a most important task for India to strengthen good relations with her neighbours.  In fact the settlement of some of the bilateral issues with neighbouring countries has clearly become more difficult because if a stubborn stance on the part of a neighbour is accepted, it merely creates further expectations of appeasement.  Similarly, non-alignment should not imply that India accepts the paternalistic domination of the international arena by the Soviet Union and the USA and is content to play the role of an honest broker.

Belgrade 1978

If we apply the yardstick of the Indian performance at the earlier non-aligned conferences, the role of the Indian delegation at Belgrade, 1978, calls for a critical analysis.  Indian officials may have contributed to the political terminology by providing new dictionary meanings to the prevailing ideas of “hegemony”.  At the same time it was quite obvious that Mr. Vajpayee carried out his momentous negotiating task at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting with insufficient preparation on the part of the Ministry of External Affairs.  The Indian delegation was unable to develop a rationale for its claim that the non-aligned movement has entered a second and crucial phase.  India would have strengthened its own integrity and effectiveness if, true to its historic role, it had come out strongly for reducing the political dependence of all non-aligned States on either of the super powers as had been its record at the first gathering in Belgrade and subsequently at Cairo, Lusaka and Algiers.

India has an influential voice among the non-aligned, but at Belgrade the Indian delegation only responded to events and did not show any vision adequate to cope with the need to shape creatively a new consensus on the fundamental assumptions of non-aligned policy.  While having no illusions about the difficulties of the situation in which the rift between the pro-Cuba and the moderate factions was real enough, a change in the Indian bureaucratic consciousness could have cast off some of the inertia produced by conventional modes of thought.  Indeed, even a reference to Mr. Morarji Desai’s address to the special UN session on disarmament might have helped the Indian delegation to think in terms of articulating long-term Indian national interests rather than of tactical exercises for compromises and balancing between opposing factions.

Mr. Desai did not mince words when, referring to the role of the super powers in the United Nations, he said: “In working these institutions some countries have become involved and have involved others in power politics, in canvassing for blocs, a competition for spheres of influence, promotion of sales of armaments and piling up of arsenals of terror, conventional and nuclear.  The much-vaunted nuclear deterrent has failed to put an end to the arms race.  In fact it has stimulated further competition involving vastly destructive weaponry.  The delays and difficulties which the super powers have experienced in coming to an agreement on the test ban – partial or total – on limitation of nuclear armaments and reduction of the armed strength of NATO and Warsaw pact countries over the last 30 years, indicate the utter futility of trying to secure even partial disarmament through a policy of balancing of forces rooted in mutual suspicion and fear.” (June 9, 1978)

It is only unwarranted complacency which prevents the Ministry of External Affairs from further developing the common sentiments of the non-aligned against the bloc mentality as articulated by the Prime Minister himself.  Perhaps it was also clear to Mr. Vajpayee after Belgrade that the true role of the Ministry of External Affairs is not merely to limit itself to South Asian regional affairs, although both Mr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser to the US President and his Russian counterpart would underline the statement which Mr. Brzezinski made about India: “It is impossible not to mention India as a regional power in South Asia, exercising influence on some key countries and also balancing some others.”  Both the super powers would wish India to move away from “global issues” to sub-continental issues.”

The warning of Belgrade is that by aiming low and opting out of world problems at the Belgrade Non-aligned Conference our delegation did not best serve India’s interests.

Management principles

Four principles are relevant on which to construct a conceptual framework for effective management of Indian foreign policy:

The first is that political decision-making can be strengthened only if there is policy planning to cope with the increasing complexity of the international situation facing a non-bloc country such as India.  The recent organisational restructuring which has placed policy planning directly under the Foreign Secretary is likely to hinder free and open discussion within the Ministry of External Affairs on policy options.  A comprehensive view which planned development of new responses to rapid international change requires is only possible if the scope of competence of the Policy Planning Department is clearly demarcated.  It is, therefore, wrong to underestimate its function by degrading it to a mere section in the Foreign Secretary’s office.

The second principle is that regionalisation of foreign policy is not a substitute for the multilateral framework within which political aims on global issues are harmonised.  The External Affairs Ministry has made a basic mistake in interpreting the logic of removing mistrust with India’s neighbours as analogous to the logic or West Germany’s Ostpolitik.  This also resulted in weakening India’s conceptual and analytical approach to non-alignment.  It is hardly wisdom for India to encourage the ominous game of super power politics by adopting a low profile.  The question must be posed whether it is conducive to promoting the role of the non-aligned that tiny Cuba and Yugoslavia should behave like global powers while India’s modality of responses is limited to the boundaries of the sub-continent.

The third principle is that with the focus on the new economic order, the competence in economic and other functional areas in the Ministry of External Affairs must be strengthened to supplement the pragmatism of the area departments.  Here again the recent organisational shake-up in the Ministry of External Affairs is quite retrograde.  By reducing the salience of the functional divisions we merely foster the illusion that area departments of the Ministry can handle all important aspects of international questions.  If we want the quality of foreign policy-making to improve, then it is important that the pragmatism of the generalist must be supplemented by the expertise of the specialist in economics, international law, the media and other subjects.  The caste consciousness of the Indian Foreign Service continues to prevent a wider coverage of foreign affairs by the Ministry of External Affairs through the induction of specialists.

The fourth principle is that effective management of India’s external relations requires an effective balance between the maintenance of India’s bargain strength and the improvement of political relationships with other countries.  If we study in particular the psychological dimensions of the whole problem, a foreign policy burdened by appeasement will land the country in the most acute crises.

Whether it is the pressures to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or the increasing pressures of the Soviet Union on Afghanistan, or the question of the Ganga waters distribution with Bangladesh, the salutary lesson of diplomatic experience is that a realistic assessment of international affairs is produced by hard bargaining and not by sacrificing national wellbeing and security in return for ambiguous commitments.

The most urgent policy problem now is to recover the initiative within the non-aligned movement.  Mr. Vajpayee has the right to demand from his Ministry new constructive and meaningful options.  The Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister have to provide a firm conceptual direction for foreign policy but they must have the best tools to tackle the tasks in international affairs.

 Effective management of foreign policy requires full-time attention by the External Affairs Minister to the world’s problems and also a Foreign Office whose organisational structure and level of expertise support the credibility of Indian foreign policy.

<< Back