Change and Continuity in Indian Foreign Policy

Shafiqur Rahman*

Eugene, May 2, 2014 (Alochonaa):The ongoing 16th Lok Sabha Elections in India has attracted unprecedented interest among the people of Bangladesh. While India has always been by far the most important foreign country for Bangladeshi international relations, the extraordinary concern about the current election is mainly due to the manifestly decisive influence of India in the recent political struggle in Bangladesh. We were at once morbidly fascinated by the seemingly inexorable march of Narendra Modi towards power in Delhi and unambiguously titillated by the prospect of a reboot in the Indo-Bangladesh high-level relations. Some people are claiming, without providing a convincing argument, that there will a major recalibration of the cast-iron relationship between Delhi and Dhaka. This relationship seemed to be in place currently with Awami League and Indian National Congress at helm of their respective countries. Others concurrently are dismissing such speculation by asserting that foreign policy of big powers are anchored in long-term strategic goals and are not perturbed substantially by change in government. At this time it may be instructive to look back on recent history and try to discern the dynamics of change and continuity in Indian foreign policy.

It is said that ‘All politics is local’ and the International Relations corollary of that is ‘Foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics’. Foreign policy experts have long expounded on the primacy of domestic politics in determination of a state’s external policies. States are not black boxes; like organisms and organizations, internal dynamics are the biggest determinant of external behavior. A simple model of two interacting levels captures the entanglement between a country’s domestic and international affairs very nicely. At the national level, government, major political parties, different interest groups, organized and unorganized people’s coalitions maneuver among themselves for favorable policies; the politicians try to enhance their power by building alliances and opposition. Governments then seek to enhance their power to build desirable coalitions by trying to influence unfolding developments both in the foreign and domestic arena. Therefore a government’s internal position best predicts how it attempts foreign policy.

Narenda Modi

Narenda Modi, Leader of the Indian BJP

This interplay is valid for democracies as well as less than democratic regimes. The best way to analyze why Russia under Putin now is pursuing an aggrandizing foreign policy while previously Yeltsin let the Russian periphery fall apart is not to look at the two leaders’ personality or pathology, but instead their respective internal positions. This interplay is even more pronounced for established democracies. Those who discuss American foreign policy while treating USA as a monolithic imperialistic world-power, grossly miss out the features and nuances of its foreign policy incentives. Only through an expert grasp of US politics, its institutions, its business, security and economic interests, different ethnic, social and regional groupings, etc., one can start getting a handle on US foreign policy. Politics becomes particularly important for the foreign policy of democratic government during times of election and regime changes. We have seen the leaked personal conversation between President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia before the 2012 election where Obama said, “This is my last election…After my election I have more flexibility”. Recently Europe wide foreign policy conversation more or less shut down for a few months before the German election when everyone in Europe waited to see who will emerge victor and what kind of coalition will she head.

Interestingly, USA and India, the two largest democracies, are regarded as quintessential of large countries that are obsessively preoccupied with internal politics and dynamics while being somewhat oblivious to outside world. Outsiders seldom gauge correctly the intensity of acrimony and enmity in the political rivalry of these established democracies. In line after line of the election manifesto of 2014, BJP excoriates Congress party leadership past and present in starkest language and seek to position itself in diametric opposition to its rival in philosophy and practice. With stark contrast as the main differentiator, it is not unreasonable to expect that a BJP government will pursue a foreign policy that also distinguishes itself from the predecessor, at least in the initial couple of years. But before looking at the current foreign policy scenario, it will be instructive to look into change and continuity in Indian foreign policy with change in governments in the last few decades to understand the institutional and political background of any probable change.

Those who follow the foreign policy debates inside India know that the diversity in opinion is no less than the diversity of politics. An analyst detected at least five major schools of FP and many minor one. He labeled them as classic and militant Nehruvians, Gandhians, center-right realists and Hindu-revivalists. (1) The major national and regional parties harbor within themselves people from many different schools but the general observation is that with a change in government, a new school emerges to dominate government policy, at least for some time.

Narishma Rao

Narasimha Rao, Indian Prime Minister 1991-96.

Narasimha Rao, Indian Prime Minister 1991-96, was the first significant head of government to emerge after the long era of the Gandhi family being at the helm of India. Rao, who served both the Indira and Rajiv Gandhi cabinets as Home, Defense and Foreign minister at different times, is remembered today as a hard realist who fundamentally reoriented India in the post-Cold War era. Most importantly, Rao and his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh deregulated the Indian economy from the statist control and opened it for private and outside investment. Rao restructured political and economic relationship with the west and developed the ‘Look East’ policy to replicate the East and South East Asian successes in the economy of India. Rao also firmly set India on the path to be a nuclear power. But it was in the South Asian neighborhood where Rao’s hard, unsentimental governance most keenly felt.

Because of Rao government’s preoccupation with bigger things like the economy and foreign relations with distant East-West powers, the local neighborhood was demonstratively neglected. Although the relationship with Pakistan has blown hot and cold, historians now say that there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the Indian side to invest in great effort. Bangladesh perhaps felt the effects of Rao’s ‘neighborhood neglect’ policy most acutely.

Indo-Bangladesh water sharing and Farakka Barrage were the most important bilateral issues but these were never a priority in Narasimha Rao’s domestic and political considerations. Rao did not have an official bilateral visit to Bangladesh in his entire five year tenure as he wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of the water sharing issue. Muchkund Dubey, a former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, wrote in his memoirs that, “if there were any diplomatic designs behind these postponements of dialogue, they were never articulated explicitly and publicly. They, therefore, did not serve any purpose except being viewed as instances of India’s arbitrary and overbearing demeanor.” (2)

Mostly because of financial scandals and the pains of economic reforms, the Congress party lost the 1996 Lok Sobha election and a United Front government, comprised of left and regional parties, took power. First Deve Gowda and then his Foreign Minister IK Gujral became Prime Minister in the period 1996-98. Deve Gowda and Gujral sought to reorient Indian foreign policy from its hard self-interest anchor to a more idealistic pragmatism. IK Gujral is remembered today as perhaps the most neighborhood-friendly statesman to come out in India in recent history. His famous ‘Gujral Doctrine’ proposed that as the regional hegemon, India should be prepared to make concessions in bilateral issues for peaceful co-development of the whole sub-continental region. During the brief period of UF government, India and Bangladesh signed a 30-year bilateral water sharing agreement and Indian-Pakistani high level meetings resumed after a lapse of more than three years.

Lok Sabha inside

The Parliamentary floor of the Lok Sabha; India’s Parliament.

The Bhratiya Janata Party at last gained its place under the Indian sun in the mid-term elections of 1998 and the Hindu revivalist school gained prominence in the foreign policy thoughts. The new government eagerly sought to differentiate itself from the perceived ‘weak’ idealism of previous governments and promised to follow a more muscular and assertive foreign policy. The first years of regional foreign affairs were dominated by formal entry into the nuclear weapons club through test detonation by both India and Pakistan and their heated rhetorical tussle.

Since the early 2000s, as India’s economic and defense capabilities grew rapidly, foreign policy is increasingly focused at playing the great power game in the global arena. At the neighborhood, India mainly sought to keep influence of other global powers at check and put a lid on potential disruptions through unrests. Goals of regional integration and mutual co-development are put on the backburner of priorities although rhetorical observance continues. An acclaimed recent book by a western diplomat claimed that, “there is a sense that India today would rather ‘opt out’ of its region (if it could) than work hard to make something of it”. (3)

It is not just in the affairs of neighborhood that Indian foreign policy have underwent sudden reversal with change in government, it happened with great power politics too. When the Soviet invasion of Afganishtan took place in December, 1979, Morarji Desai of Janata Party was in power at Delhi. The JP government strongly protested the invasion and supported its condemnation in the United Nations. But Indira Gandhi regained power a few months later and she, who had long history of great rapport with Kremlin, significantly toned down Indian opposition to Russian incursions into India’s neighborhood. We saw another reversal during the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

India Gandhi

Indira Gandhi, Indian Prime Minister 1966-1977 and 1980-1984.

Prime Minister VP Singh and his foreign minister IK Gujral strongly opposed the military buildup of US led coalition in the Arabian peninsula to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But at the end of 1990, VP Singh was replaced as premier by Chandra Shekhar Singh and he reversed the Indian opposition through providing logistic support for the US counter offensive in Iraq in early 1991. Also we are aware how Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian troops to Sri Lanka in 1987 in the guise of peacekeeping forces to preserve the separation between battling Tamil Tiger and Sinhalese Army. VP Singh government ordered quick withdrawal of Indian forces when it came into power in 1989.

In the past decades Indian foreign policy went through so many reversals due to reactions to external events that it had been accused of lacking an overarching strategic vision and being largely reactive. But we can also see a strong current of continuity flowing through changes in government and leadership. One of the most consistent aspect of Indian foreign policy since the end of Cold War is maintaining primacy of economic relationship. India has thoroughly internalized the lesson that trappings of a great power can only be sustained over durable economic power. Supporting Indian business and big-businessmen all over the world is a core brief for all foreign missions and diplomatic efforts.

Another unflagging continuance of foreign policy in the recent decades is emphasis on bilateral relationship at the expense of multilateralism. In the first few decades after independence, when India’s economic and strategic strength was disproportionately weaker than its size, Indian foreign policy adhered to multilateralism and Non-alignment to promote an equality of nations in the global scale while India demonstratively exploited the unequal relationships in the South Asian neighborhood by avoiding multilateral constraints and professing to stick to bilateral relations. Now that India has gained stature both in local and global arena, the foreign policy embraces great power diplomacy through bilateralism both in local and global arena.

We can only speculate on any prospective change of Indian foreign policy towards Bangladesh in broad strokes if a BJP-led government takes power at Delhi. As we have already seen in the election campaign, temperature of rhetoric from Delhi is bound to rise substantially because of internal political expediency. Also the inter-governmental relationship between the two countries is bound to cool down perceptibly in the short time because of the close relationship between Awami League and BJP’s bête noire, the Congress Party. Even before the election in Bangladesh in January, we have seen that some BJP leaders and intellectuals express unease at how the Indian government is being closely identified with the governing party in Bangladesh. BJP’s election manifesto gives few clues, resorting mostly in sound bites.

BJP billboard

A BJP election billboard for this year’s election

“BJP believes that political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential for south Asia’s growth and development. The Congress-led UPA has failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold. …. Instead of being led by big power interests, we will engage proactively on our own with countries in the neighbourhood and beyond. In our neighbourhood we will pursue friendly relations. However, where required we will not hesitate from taking strong stand and steps. We will work towards strengthening Regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN.”(4)

We can be sure that political and economic self-interest will retain its primacy in a new government’s policy towards Bangladesh. If the people of Bangladesh and the anti-government opposition want Indian help in restoring democracy in Bangladesh, it must demonstrate to a new Indian government that denying the people of Bangladesh right to choose its own government and perceived closeness of India to a unpopular and mandate-less government is fueling resentment and unrest in the country; a bitterness that will be harmful to the long-term interest of both the government and state of India.

(1) Carsten Rauch: Farewell Non-Alignment? Constancy and change of foreign policy in post-colonial India


(3) Does The Elephant Dance: David. M. Malone. Oxford University Press. Page 269

(4) BJP Election Manifesto. Page 40

* Shafiqur Rahman is currently pursuing a PhD in Operations Management in the USA. He obtained an MBA and a Masters degree from Penn State University. Prior to that he was an engineering student in his home country, Bangladesh. Rahman worked in the technology and trade sector for ten years before becoming a PhD researcher. 

*** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on Bengal history. Please send us your submission at

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