Reclaiming India’s Foreign Policy for its Citizens

This is the modified version of a Valedictory Address delivered at a conference titled, Citizen’s Foreign Policy at the Department of Political Science, Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University on 11 November 2014

It is an important distinction to make between citizen’s foreign policy and people’s foreign policy. While the latter is generally used in the sense of ensuring that foreign policy is not just a matter of high politics but is also one of wider democratic consideration of the interests of ordinary people as well, it is also in this sense liable to be misused or misinterpreted. Just as democracy by the numbers alone does not convey the full import of the values and spirit of democracy, so also simple reference to the ‘people’ as a way of legitimizing a foreign policy choice has its drawbacks. The reference to a citizen however comes with clear implications.

Citizenship means adherence to certain principles and values – in the Indian case, these are laid out in the Preamble of the Constitution. Citizens possess the knowledge of their rights and duties as enshrined in the Constitution; they are also able to exercise these rights and willing to carry out their duties. Both nationality and citizenship can be had through descent but the latter involves conscious choice, thought and action in order to make the lable truly fit. Citizenship is an act, both individual and collective – it cannot be exercised in a vacuum without reference to another, without a relationship with other citizens and yet, the citizen is entirely alone in his exercise and solely responsible for his actions.

 

The Indian Citizen and Foreign Policy

In a country that continues to be afflicted by poverty and lack of education, where it is a struggle simply to exercise one’s rights, how much time and energy can ordinary citizens devote to foreign policy? Indeed, such attention seems something of a luxury. Except that in a globalized world, actions in one country can often have consequences across borders – think climate change, technology breakthroughs, energy security, pandemics and indeed, war and conflict. Whether poor or well-to-do, all Indian citizens suffer the consequences of unfair patent laws that result in expensive medicines, of unrepresentative multilateral organizations or of unequal global structures such as the UN Security Council, for instance.

Of course, in all countries and everywhere, it is the poor that suffer disproportionately, offered as fodder to war machines or caught up in consequences of events far beyond their comprehension. This is true of India as well and it is this lack of comprehension is the first enemy of both democracy and citizenship. It is the lack of attention and knowledge of the citizen that makes important policy decisions with national and international implications the fief of a few in India. It is thus the responsibility of academics, analysts, the media and the people’s representatives to remain ever alert to world events with consequences for the ordinary citizen and to communicate both fact and options to ordinary citizens. It is not as if foreign policy is actually less of a concern or does not interest the ordinary man or woman on the street. It can certainly seem like an esoteric or distant subject to deal with but war and immigration – legal or otherwise – for instance, have always concerned people as much as issues of domestic politics and governance. Indeed, they are often all connected.

Citizens from north India might be more familiar with countries like Pakistan and Nepal and therefore exhibit greater interest in goings-on in these countries or even be willing to offer their opinions on various matters related to these neighbours. The same might be true of the citizens of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya or Tripura with respect to Bangladesh just as Tamil Nadu’s people hold strong opinions when it comes to matters Sri Lankan.

Foreign policy, unlike domestic policy however, naturally offers less control over developments and even less leeway for mistakes. Governments use this as a reason to preserve this area as one of exclusivity requiring specialization in the form of language skills, foreign travel and so on. As a result, the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) is one of the most elite and exclusive of government services. It is a well-know characteristic of our civil servants – and a legacy of our colonial past – that they walk around with a few chips on their shoulders but even within this exclusive breed, the IFS officer has been a breed still more exclusive. And yet, is it not an irony that India’s border areas offer the opportunity for both language specialization and for travel that are either deliberately ignored or restricted in the form of hard borders which have blocked the traditional free movement of people and goods? Today, borders are difficult to cross by land in South Asia – it is airports accessible only to a moneyed minority – that are the preferred and legal entry and exit points between most countries in the region.

Against such a backdrop, how does the Indian citizen stake claim over foreign policy? One, Indian citizens must be able to learn about the outside world and its developments in their own language and idioms, without over-simplification and in all its complexity.  Two, the states in India have a greater role to play vis-à-vis the central government in managing the country’s foreign relations.  Three, a narrow definition of ‘realism’ that suggests that foreign policymaking involves secrecy and a closed or narrow circle of actors in order to achieve the country’s interests must change. ‘Realism’ could well require the central and state governments to pay greater attention to citizens’ views and interests in order to maximize the Republic’s interests. Such realism has already been operating in the realm of domestic politics in the era of coalition politics where regional, caste and community interests often have to be taken on board in the formation of governments and in policymaking. Despite the several ills in the system, it also cannot be denied that such coalition-building and coalition-pleasing has also helped the widening and deepening of democracy, including access to justice and social goods, in the country.

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Language and Knowledge Elitism

The exclusivity of English in our foreign policy establishment and the tyranny of jargon and pedanticism that afflicts Indian academia must both stop. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a beginning by speaking regularly in Hindi at international events. This however is the easy part. The idea is however, not to replace one kind of elitism with another kind of parochialism. Speaking in Hindi at international forums, when one can well speak in English and communicate to a larger and wider audience is a rather poor example of patriotism, if that is what it is. Often, this resort to Hindi is an exercise in anti-Macaulayism, forgetting the role that the English language has played in making universal values such as equality and justice a part of the daily Indian discourse as well as in uniting the country, ironically enough, against British colonialism. It is no coincidence that Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Dalit icon and the Father of the Indian Constitution, and other social reformers before and after him, have laid such stress on the English language as a source of empowerment for India’s marginalized classes.

Communicating with the national audience on foreign policy issues in Hindi and other regional languages is far harder and of much greater importance. The political and the bureaucratic classes however, seem to think that such ‘high politics’ is best managed at the elite level and that involvement of or communication with ordinary denizens is unnecessary. Indian academics is equally guilty of such class- and often caste-based elitism expressed – or hidden, one should say – in the use of the English language and the proclivity to only engage upwards with the policymaking elite rather than downwards with ordinary people, in their own language and idioms. Such elitism and prejudice by academics and intellectuals is also evident in the heavy emphasis on theory or theorizing in the Indian academic system – Brahminism in another form – rather than in choosing to study empirical realities that are more germane to the foreign policy interests of a developing country.

Of course, this academic reality is also partly the result of government apathy and desire to limit access to foreign policy knowledge in the form of field experience or language expertise. Research in Indian universities remains woefully underfunded and international relations and area studies are no exception – the field trips and domain knowledge that could have been had if students and researchers had the funds are simply not forthcoming in the volumes necessary to truly widen and democratize the study of international relations and foreign policy in India.

Criticism of the government apart, the role of universities, research institutions and think-tanks must be recast and not only with respect to foreign policy studies but across the entire range of disciplines and policy studies in order to both empower the citizen and provide greater policy options to the government.

 

The China Experience

Against this backdrop, it might be a useful lesson to examine China from two perspectives. One, India’s exposure to China has resulted in a breaking down of some of the elitism that exists both within Indian government and academia. The rise of the Chinese economy, has for instance, created a demand for those speaking the Chinese language. This is turning out to be a great leveler in academia, if not also wider Indian society. Take just the case of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Languages in New Delhi. Even as late as 15 years ago, it was the Romance languages – French and Spanish – and other European languages like German, that were in the greatest demand and seen as the ‘cool’ languages to know. Naturally, those from the Indian hinterland who came from schools that used regional languages rather than English as a medium of instruction were disadvantaged when it came to entry into these departments. Many however were so determined to get into JNU or to escape their backwater existence that they applied to get into other languages being taught. Chinese was one such language, except that this was a language that would soon change the fortunes of those who opted for it.

The beauty of Chinese especially in the Indian context is that whether from an English-medium school or from a regional language-medium school, the 1st year BA students were all at the same starting line – there was no added advantage of knowing English that might have helped someone to have an edge as in the case of say French or German with their strong influences on the English language. Even as higher education in general, remains an activity that is restricted to certain classes, students of languages such as Chinese and Korean (another economy whose enterprises have found growth in India in the last decade and more) appear to come from a greater range of classes and backgrounds than those of the other so-called ‘elite language’ departments. And they have in the past few years also seen their opportunities to earn a living grow as fast as the Chinese economy itself has grown. The fact that India is today more than a nominal democracy ensures that the subaltern has a way of striking back.[1]

Two, Chinese leaders and intelligentsia have used their own language to communicate international events to their people. In China, the concepts of political science and of international relations are all translated into Chinese and taught and communicated in the Chinese language; practically every major political philosopher and thinker is translated into and read in Chinese by university students and lay people alike. All of this allows for a greater interaction of these largely Western concepts with local Chinese traditions of statecraft and governance and therefore the creation of new paradigms of looking at national, regional and global issues.

Also related is the fact that China has in the last decade created a whole global news gathering and dissemination infrastructure to match its rise in the international economy and its growing political profile. This is so that China can both communicate its point of view as well as counter the dominant Western paradigms. What is more it has also created an apparatus that can communicate these views in multiple foreign languages. In India, meanwhile, Doordarshan, the state broadcaster while carrying the huge and important responsibility of telecasting in multiple languages remains satisfied often to provide sub-standard content in a lackadaisical manner. Further, the idea that as state broadcaster, it has a responsibility to communicate the ideas and ethos of the Indian Republic across borders in foreign languages in countries where India’s interests are growing, does not seem to have crossed the minds of the powers that be.

Learning foreign languages, especially those of the growing Asian economies and before long, no doubt, of various African nations, is therefore, one way in which ordinary Indian citizens can reclaim their rights over the exercise of foreign policy in this country. That said, how will most ordinary citizens begin to think that they can have a say in the conduct of foreign policy without first being adequately informed of the complexities of global politics and its various aspects ranging from globalization to international law to climate change to trade negotiations?

This is where conscientious politicians, dedicated academics and analysts and a vigilant media come in. It is the responsibility of these sections to inform and communicate to citizens about matters beyond India’s borders in a language and fashion that they can understand. India foreign policy writing unfortunately is done mostly in English with only baby steps now being taken to discuss matters in the regional languages in print and on television. Mostly however, these rely on translations or on the feeds of foreign news agencies with their slant on reporting and analysis, assuming of course that the translations are accurate.

There are, even as we speak, efforts to create a ‘Chinese theory of international relations’ – while applying nationality to theory might defeat the purpose of theory itself, the point here is that even as there is a willingness to borrow and to learn from outside, there is also an insistence on fashioning and adapting foreign concepts to national needs. Of course, China can take it too far – the burden of both Mao Zedong’s battles against the ‘spiritual pollution’ of foreign ideas – forgetting that Marxism itself was a foreign idea – and of Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ – which surely does draw some inspiration from the ‘American Dream’ – is ostensibly to distinguish China from other countries, to protect its ‘uniqueness’. In reality, however, these moves were/are as much about the preservation of individual power or of the Communist Party of China rule.

India, of course, should learn the right lessons. Colonialism was certainly a difficult and traumatic period in our history and a time of great loss and deprivation but we have also much by way of a positive legacy. We are what we are today because we have adopted concepts such as democracy, equality, fraternity and the rule of law from the West. We may fail in implementing these ideas and in practicing them in the right spirit but that does not mean we do not keep trying to improve ourselves instead of seeking excuses or extremist alternatives in decadent tradition or a call to some imagined unity or ‘Indianness’ of the past.

 

Acting through the States

The MEA in October 2014 for the first time appointed a Joint Secretary to liaise exclusively on foreign policy-related matters with the states.[2] This is belated acknowledgement that the states are a necessary via media between the citizens and the corridors of power in New Delhi in ensuring that citizens’ interests are represented in foreign policymaking.

In a republic, it is the people’s representatives in the legislatures and through their promotion into the executive who carry out the will of the citizens. The conduct and executive of foreign policy in India is however an exclusive privilege of the central government. Despite its federal structure, India states have had little say in foreign policy until federalism got a fresh lease of life with the advent of coalition politics in the late 1980s. Indian states, most notably, Tamil Nadu involved themselves or sought to influence foreign policy decision-making by the central government for example, on the question of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, while other states Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab in the west and several Northeast Indian states were implicated in national foreign policy due to separatist movements or the influence of external nations in the fanning and support of these separatist movements.

With globalization there also came the proliferation of economic linkages at multiple levels between nations with the result that Indian states have also begun demanding an increasing role in foreign economic policymaking including trade agreements and investment policies that particularly affect state interests and on issues where overriding national security interests are not at stake. The Indian central government certainly therefore has begun to pay attention to the both the necessity and requirements of a more decentralized foreign policy. Prime Minister Modi has, in fact, been on record, calling for a greater involvement of the states on a variety of issues.[3]

Article 246 of the Indian Constitution, states, ‘Parliament has exclusive power to make laws with respect to any of the matters enumerated in List I in the Seventh Schedule (in this Constitution referred to as the ‘Union List’).’ While ‘Foreign affairs; all matters which bring the Union into relation with any foreign country’ (List I-10) and ‘Entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries’ (List I-14) are items on List I, the only say Parliament has in reality is only as regards implementation of treaty obligations, not their approval. Article 253 states, ‘Parliament has power to make any law for the whole or any part of the territory of India for implementing any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries or any decision made at any international conference, association or other body.’[4] It is thus clear that the states do not have any say in foreign policy decision-making. And given the fact that it is not necessary for the executive to bring a treaty it has signed to Parliament for ratification, the representatives of the states in Parliament, too, do not have a say. The executive signs the treaty, ratification too is carried out by the Cabinet of Ministers.[5]

While Article 253 does not enable even Parliament to have a say, leave alone the states, in an era of coalition politics, the central executive has in reality had to pay attention to demands from partners in the ruling coalition and from the states that these partners may represent. This affords the chance for Parliament to make its views known despite constitutional limitations. It is probably inevitable that state interests will increasingly exercise influence on issues related to foreign affairs. Naturally, the level of influence and the nature of outcomes will vary from state to state and depend also on the issue at stake. Among factors that play a role in determining a state’s influence at the national level, are the number of MPs it has – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu are prominent examples – and whether a similar political dispensation exists at the central and state levels.

Similarly, a state’s location – whether along a sensitive international frontier – has also played a role in the level of central government attention that the state receives – as has been the case with Jammu and Kashmir and the states of Northeast India bordering China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In each case, both positive and negative effects on a state are possible. However, with coalition regimes at the centre or with strong regional representation in a single national party government, the states have greater opportunities of softening the negatives and magnifying the advantages. There are additional factors that can come into play such as a state’s foreign trade, its exposure to events in foreign countries other than those on its borders and the political influence at home and abroad of its diaspora.

Take the case only of India’s growing relations with China. Attempts are now being made to offset the trade deficit with China through an increase in Chinese investments in India, particularly, in the form of infrastructure financing. As recent high-level visits between the two countries have shown, these investments and financing requirements will increasingly be negotiated at the sub-national level whether between the Indian central government and Chinese provinces, between the Chinese central government and Indian states or between the Chinese provinces and Indian states themselves. Indeed, a series of sister-city and sister-province agreements have been signed over the past year between the two countries.[6] While China has literally hundreds of such agreements between its cities and provinces and those of other countries, this is only a recent phenomenon in the case of India.

Besides the economic advantages of such arrangements, there are also important people-to-people contacts and knowledge that are built up in the process – sister cities and provinces usually not only give each other preferential trade access and economic benefits, they also make it easier for each other’s citizens to travel, study and live in the sister city or province. In the case of China, with its authoritarian political system and for the liberal democracies of the West or of Japan between whom many such arrangements exist, this creates opportunities for socialization and greater understanding between peoples of each other’s histories, cultures and politics as also the ability to deal with differences. It also brings foreign policy objectives and implementation – in the form of promoting peace and stability in political ties and mutual economic benefit – down to the level of the common man’s understanding and responsibility.

 

Conclusion

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently started a regular radio address to the people titled, ‘Man ki baat’.[7] This is not a new concept. It recalls, in fact, the famous ‘fireside chats’ of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt – a series of some 30 radio addresses from March 1933 to June 1944 that covered a range of domestic issues and foreign affairs, including the fight against fascism in Europe.[8] In fact, it is not just Modi who is copying from the Americans – the Chinese too have been at it for some time. Chinese President Xi Jinping made an address to his people on Chinese New Year’s Eve 2014 that was broadcast on both television and radio[9] – a first in modern Chinese history and designed to convey a message of openness and to counter the popular perception of Chinese leaders being aloof and privileged.[10] India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru himself would use the radio to communicate to the masses and write long and frequent letters to his cabinet colleagues and the Chief Ministers of the states discussing with and appraising them of various foreign policy matters.

However, Nehru is also a warning of how, despite his own egalitarian and democratic proclivities as an individual, the conduct of foreign policy became highly personalized – he was also the Foreign Minister and in the early years met individual aspirants and entrants into the Indian Foreign Service. Today, foreign policy during his tenure as Prime Minister is referred to as ‘Nehruvian’ foreign policy. Affixing such personality-related labels might be a matter of discursive convenience, they might even be accurate in the sense that they convey the influence of that one individual on the foreign policy process but they also end of shaping both how we understand foreign policy of the period and affecting subsequent discourse. They are also reflective of a failure in the democratic exercise of and oversight over foreign policy. Surely, no country’s foreign policy can be the handiwork of one man or be labeled in the name of one man, if his colleagues or Parliament exercised sufficient influence in discussing international affairs affecting the country and its policies toward the world around it. Citizens must guard against this tendency no matter how brilliant or visionary a Prime Minister or Foreign Minister appears to be.

As the Indian economy grows, so also will the exposure of ordinary Indians to international affairs and the quality and variety of their views on Indian interests abroad. Against such a backdrop, building domestic consensus on foreign policy decisions will become increasingly crucial to achieving Indian interests as also the ability of India’s foreign policymakers to reach beyond the walls of government for inputs from as wide a variety of sources as possible.

If a country’s foreign policy is a reflection of its domestic realities then it must also be acknowledged that current Indian foreign policy reflects also the democratic deficit in the Indian political system. Indeed, the aforementioned domestic developments in India that continue to the present reflect this reality. ‘Idealism’ might be seen as a dirty word in politics and in foreign policymaking but a democratic republic cannot long engage in cynical realpolitik without letting some of the poison of cynicism and instrumentalism seep into its body politic and corrode its vitals. The experiences of the United States, the world’s oldest democracy are instructive.

Meanwhile, does a realist approach to foreign policy preclude the participation of citizens in foreign policy? To assume so, is to also believe that citizens cannot take care of their own interests and are incapable of seeing what is in the best interests of the country. In a republic, citizens have chosen their representatives to exercise power and authority on their behalf but on the basis of the principles enshrined in the Constitution and citizen’s involvement in foreign policy is as much a requirement of realism – in the interest of defining correctly and defending the national interest – as is their engagement with domestic issues or everyday politics.

That India today is not simply Bharat or Hindustan or any old India of the past but the Republic of India is sum of all our historical experiences and the best possible that we can be. It only remains for us to ensure that we follow the Preamble of the Indian Constitution in both letter and spirit. In fact, for those who lament that India does not have a grand strategy, one would only point to the Preamble of the Constitution – that is our grand strategy – it cannot any more simple and straightforward than that.

 

Notes

[1] For more specifically about the social dimensions of studying Chinese and China in India, see, https://indiandchina.com/2012/10/03/china-studies-in-india-of-caste-class-and-capital/

[2] http://www.mea.gov.in/divisions.htm. See also http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/mea-to-oversee-foreign-investments-in-states/article6530956.ece

[3] See for instance, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/full-text-prime-minister-narendra-modis-speech-on-68th-independence-day/99/ and http://profit.ndtv.com/news/economy/article-states-must-have-greater-role-in-new-plan-body-prime-minister-709695.

[4] For a criticism of how Article 253 was framed and its anachronistic nature in the present day, see A. G. Noorani, Constitutional Questions in India: The President, Parliament and the States (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 349-50.

[5] For a discussion of this aspect, see http://www.thehindu.com/fline/fl1907/19070870.htm

[6] see http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?53/Bilateral/Multilateral_Documents and http://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/24012/List_of_Documents_signed_during_the_State_Visit_of_Chinese_President_Xi_Jinping_to_India

[7] http://www.newsonair.com/Man-ki-baat.asp

[8] http://www.history.com/topics/fireside-chats

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBwZNZ3RJCA

[10] http://cmp.hku.hk/2014/10/27/36702/

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