India’s Foreign Policy Transformation

India's Foreign Policy Transformation

by C. Raja Mohan
July 2, 2012

This is one of six essays in the book review roundtable on Sumit Ganguly & Rahul Mukherji’s India Since 1980.

C. Raja Mohan heads the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected].

This is one of six essays in the book review roundtable on Sumit Ganguly & Rahul Mukherji’s India Since 1980.

Assessing India’s evolution since 1980 is a compelling idea that has been executed with much competence by Sumit Ganguly and Rahul Mukherji in India Since 1980. The volume is part of a broader series of studies on a number of countries since 1980, but any study of India since 1980 offers special rewards. Many features of contemporary India find their origins in that decade. The first considerations of economic reform, the rumbling of the two great tectonic plates of caste and religion, outreach to the United States and China, the perception of India as a regional power, and India’s launch of nuclear weapon and missile programs can all be traced back to the 1980s.

In the three decades since then, India’s views of itself and the world, as well as the world’s image of India, have undergone profound changes. The core concepts that defined India’s political and economic development before this period—economic self-reliance, socialism, secularism, nonalignment, and third worldism—would be recast or come under great stress in the years that followed. Ganguly and Mukherji divide the story of India since 1980 into four different domains: the changing nature of its engagement with the world, the restructuring of India’s economy, the new patterns of domestic political mobilization, and the challenges to the idea of secularism amid the rise of Hindu nationalism. In a volume of fewer than 200 pages, Ganguly and Mukherji deftly guide us through the labyrinth of India’s dramatic transformation.

On the revolutionary changes in India’s foreign policy, Ganguly and Mukherji rightly avoid the temptation to offer a comprehensive account. Their focus instead is on India’s relations with two major powers (the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia), India’s principal adversaries (Pakistan and China), and New Delhi’s successful engagement with Southeast Asia as part of its mid-1990s initiative on “Looking East.” The chapter on foreign policy also briefly touches on the nuclear question that consumed so much diplomatic and military energy during the last three decades.

Ganguly and Mukherjee delineate with ease the main lines of New Delhi’s diplomatic activity in the three decades that followed 1980:

    The Cold War’s end made it exceedingly difficult for India to continue with its policies of non-alignment and Third World solidarity. Yet structure alone cannot fully explain the changes that came about. Unless key individuals at critical junctures had chosen to undertake different pathways and seize opportune moments, India would have faced the distinct possibility of marginalization in the emergent global order (p. 55).

This assessment whets our appetite for more intensive analyses of the sources of change in India’s foreign policy. Besides the Cold War’s end, one other structural factor that compelled changes in India’s foreign policy comes readily to mind: the collapse of India’s economic model of state-led socialism at around the same time as the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The change in India’s economic development strategy is fully detailed in another chapter of the book. In retrospect, India’s decision to embark on economic liberalization and globalization had a far bigger impact on India’s foreign policy than the end of the Cold War.

Whereas India’s total merchandise trade in 1980 was $22 billion, it reached nearly $780 billion in 2011. Well before the mid-2010s, it will cross the consequential $1 trillion mark. Merchandise trade now accounts for more than 40% of the nation’s GDP, which is a stunning transformation for a country that had consigned itself to the world’s economic backwaters until 1991. India’s growing economic muscle and the prospects for rapid growth are at the heart of the current international perception of India’s rise as a potential great power.

On the foreign policy front, economic change has given India leverage to build more solid relations with the West, especially the United States, and to improve its international standing in the nuclear order. The reform process has also allowed India to reintegrate itself into the economic and political structures of East Asia.

Economic change has also begun to demonstrate the potential for structural change in India’s relations with its two main adversaries—China and Pakistan. China is India’s largest trading partner in goods—their bilateral commerce rose from less than $1 billion in the late 1990s to $74 billion in 2011. Although the growing trade between the two countries has not resulted in a resolution of their long-standing boundary dispute, it has generated a very different template for the conduct of India’s relations with China. Even Pakistan has begun to recognize the importance of the “China model” and has ended five decades of reluctance to trade with India.

Amid India’s deepening economic interdependence with the rest of the world, New Delhi’s appreciation of the developing world has begun to change as well. From a past view of third-world nations as part of an anti-Western trade union, New Delhi now sees them as markets for its products, sources of raw material, potential recipients of India’s expanding foreign aid, and partners in the promotion of India’s increasingly global interests.

Ganguly and Mukherji also open the door for a deeper investigation of the nature of agency in the making of Indian foreign policy. Scholars of Indian foreign policy would want to study the changing nature of India’s domestic polity—strong regional parties and weak coalition governments at the center—and its impact on the making of India’s foreign policy. If India’s foreign policy has undergone a dramatic change since the 1980s, is there a new national consensus on the principles of its external orientation? If there is one, how has it been organized?

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decisions to conduct nuclear tests in May 1998, declare India as a nuclear weapon state, and proclaim the United States a “natural ally” have been widely seen as a reflection of the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a decisive rejection of the Nehruvian legacy. This left-leaning liberal critique, however, leaves us with two difficult propositions that need to be examined in greater detail. If Vajpayee’s foreign policy was an assertion of Hindu nationalism, how does one explain his persistent overtures to Pakistan despite deep domestic skepticism? Equally challenging is the problem of substantive continuity in the foreign policies of Vajpayee and his successor from the left-of-center Congress Party.

There is thus a real paradox that those following Ganguly and Mukherji in the study of India’s transformation since the 1980s must grapple with. While India is poised to become one of the world’s largest economies and a major power, many traditional tendencies in India’s worldview seem to be re-emerging. There is a renewed fascination with nonalignment and a more vigorous emphasis on strategic autonomy. [1] Even as it deepens military cooperation with the United States, India remains an enthusiastic participant in the BRICS Forum and a vocal champion of a multipolar world. Despite the extraordinary transformation of India’s foreign policy since the 1980s, some ideas seem eternal.


[1] See Sunil Khilnani et al., “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century,” Centre for Policy Research, Working Paper, January 2012,

Asia Policy 14 is supported in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

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