India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar pitches for a realism-based Indian foreign policy in his new book, The India Way. The book dwells on India’s neighborhood, in depth, but it does not mention Nepal—not once. He writes of the need to revive SAARC in order to rekindle the spirit of regionalism in South Asia. Yet as that is currently not feasible because of an obtrusive Pakistan, he advocates for the promotion of alternate regional frameworks like BIMSTEC.
Having previously served as India’s ambassador to both US and China as well as its foreign secretary, Jaishankar has had a ringside view of the power dynamics between the most important global actors today. He foresees more friction between these states as they increasingly turn inward. In this self-centered world order, India, he says, should abandon its traditional non-alignment for multi-alignment—ditch its old ideological hangovers in order to increase its options.
He thinks India should play a non-reciprocal and more active role in South Asia and help regional connectivity. Separately, as a sitting foreign minister, he cannot be critical of the current Indian establishment or of other big international actors he has to deal with daily. Yet China’s rise, its greater sway in India’s immediate neighborhood, and China’s evergreen friendship with Pakistan clearly bother him.
He wants to ditch the old ‘Dogmas of Delhi’ and forge ahead with a more pragmatic approach. Yet the fact is that Delhi’s dogmas continue to have great sway in South Asia. Ironically, in a perfect illustration of the southern neighbor’s big brother attitude, then Indian foreign secretary Jaishankar had come to Kathmandu in 2015 to lecture Nepali leaders on constitution-making. The dominant perception in New Delhi is still that South Asia is India’s inviolable backyard.
Not that Jaishankar in unaware of the contradictions in India’s current foreign policy outlook, as he also flags in the book. But he says some contradictions are inevitable as India pursues a more realistic foreign policy. For instance, Prime Minister Modi is as comfortable jetting into Islamabad unannounced to greet Nawaz Sharif on his birthday as he is dropping bombs on Pakistani soil in retaliation for acts of terrorism.
Of course, Jaishankar also entirely sidesteps the rise of Hindutwa and its impact on India’s foreign policy. Amit Shah’s alleged remarks about establishing BJP governments in Sri Lanka and Nepal aside, the BJP government in India does want to export Hindutwa to Nepal and reestablish the old Hindu state. Jaishankar also skips the rise of illiberalism in India and its direct or indirect export in the neighborhood. Oli for one is learning rather quickly from his nationalism-whipping, rule-bending Indian counterpart.
There is also a clear hint that India will work closely with the US under the Indo-Pacific Strategy, as well as with the rest of the QUAD members, in what amounts to an unacknowledged admission of India’s limited capabilities to check Chinese designs in the region.
Jaishankar is right that nationalism has gotten a boost in the post-covid world where everyone is more and more looking after their own interests. Therefore India too should not resist, he suggests, from baring its fangs in pursuit of a larger national interest. (Perhaps the blockade on Nepal was a part of the same game-plan.)
Wonderful that Jaishankar envisions a South Asia united by Indian non-reciprocity and connectivity initiatives. Yet there has always been a gulf between what India says and what it does. In fact, India’s problem with delivery is one reason the likes of Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh these days rely more on China to get things done. That perception of India being an unreliable friend will be tough to change.