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Posted at: Nov 20, 2019, 6:38 AM; last updated: Nov 20, 2019, 6:38 AM (IST)

Outcome alone is the test

Vivek Katju

Vivek Katju
Energetic diplomatic engagement is one thing, the end result quite another
Outcome alone is the test
Incomplete picture: Jaishankar, regrettably, refrained from mentioning the realisation of the Modi government’s specific foreign policy objectives.

Vivek Katju
Ex-secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

In a timely lecture last week, and in the interaction that followed, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar sought to provide an intellectual framework of the Modi government’s world view and foreign policy. Going further, he surveyed the conduct of India’s external engagement since Independence amidst the constant changes that have occurred globally during these decades. In doing so, Jaishankar, a life-long professional diplomat, but now a leading BJP minister, remained largely balanced, but part of his party’s peeves came through, albeit obliquely. Regrettably, he refrained from mentioning the realisation of the Modi government’s specific foreign policy objectives.

Jaishankar asserted that India’s current foreign policy is realistic, hard-headed and pragmatic, suited to a multi-polar world in the throes of fundamental transformation. He implied that it has shed past inhibitions and is not shy of multiple and simultaneous engagements with players that are at odds with each other. As he put it:  ‘To the uninitiated or the anachronistic, the pursuit of apparently contradictory approaches and objectives may seem baffling. How do you reconcile a Howdy Modi, a Mamallapuram, and a Vladivostok? Or the RIC (Russia, India and China) with JAI (Japan, America and India)? Or Quad with the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation)? An Iran with the Saudis or Israel with Palestine? The answer is in a willingness to look beyond dogma and enter the real world of convergences.’

There can be no quarrel with this approach, but the fact is that the age of ideologies dividing the world and providing the basis for determining foreign policy choices has gone. Thus, when Jaishankar mentions the ‘dogmas of Delhi’, the obvious question is ‘where are these dogmas’? Certainly, no one in India’s security class or in major parts of the political class is opposed to multiple engagements seeking convergences. Perhaps Jaishankar is still coloured by the left ideologues of his JNU days who played such a negative role during the making of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Do they matter anymore? If anything, it is the Modi government that sometimes displays a dogmatic approach, as illustrated by its policy towards the Taliban.

Jaishankar puts the pursuit of foreign policy since Independence in six phases, of which the last began in 2014 and is ongoing. Significantly, he notes: ‘Each of the six phases have had their highs and lows.’ While he spells out some of the lows of the first five phases—the 1962 defeat and the ‘turbulence of 1991’for instance—he does not mention a specific ‘low’ of the present phase. It is sad that his interlocutor, too, did not press him on this point. That said, the review of the conduct of India’s external relations is largely accurate, though it does not offer new insights.

Jaishankar has sought to ‘capture’ the ‘performance’ of India’s foreign policy in ‘five basket of issues’. These ‘baskets’ relate to the application of realism, economic issues relating to foreign collaboration, engagement with international players, risk assessments and taking and understanding evolving global situations. In critiquing the lack of emphasis on developing hard power in the early decades of Independence, he treads what is by now a well-trodden path. What is noteworthy is how he applies this critique to India’s approach to Pakistan.

He believes that the Nehruvian approach was naïve and lacked an understanding of the real nature of Pakistan. The fact is that the reluctance to accept that country’s intrinsic and enduring animosity towards India has spared few in India’s political class. Almost all PMs, including Modi, have chased the holy grail of good ties with Pakistan. All governments after 1991, including Modi’s, periodically resiled from the stated position that terror and talks cannot go together. Jaishankar would be well aware of it, for he was foreign secretary when the programme outlined in the Ufa Modi-Nawaz Sharif joint statement of 2015 was given up by Modi because it was unacceptable to the Pakistani generals. Further, for six months after the Pathankot attack, the Modi government kept the hope alive to start the dialogue process with Pakistan, and for this purpose allowed a Pakistani team to visit the Pathankot base. It is good that after Uri, a new policy approach has been taken; hopefully it will not be abandoned.

Jaishankar is correct in noting that Europe has to adjust to the changing balance of power and not live in the past when it could indulge in ‘passing judgments and make very condescending comments’. It is noteworthy though that he has not made any comments on China’s actions against Indian interests. This is deliberate. Is the pursuit of the Wuhan/Mamallapuram spirit being taken too far? How does this measure on the yardstick of realism?

For the past few years, there has been an impatience which Jaishankar obviously shares with processes and form and an increasing focus on outcomes. Form and process are not ends in themselves, but means to achieve objectives and cannot become rigid. However, process and form are the avenues to achieve results, and in democracies subject to the rule of law, adherence to lawful process is necessary to prevent arbitrary and capricious functioning.

Diplomacy and engagements are also processes to achieve interests. They are not ends in themselves. It is creditable that the Modi government has pursued energetic diplomatic engagement across the world, but the test will be in positive outcomes. It is easy to talk in generalities; the trouble always lies in the specifics.

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