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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2646

The Domestic dynamics of India’s foreign policy

By P R Kumaraswamy

The intensifying violence in Sri Lanka and the result influx of refugees are bound generate intense debate in India, especially in the southern state of Tamil Nadu over India’s policy. Indeed, over the years, various ethno-religious groups in India had wielded considerable influence upon some of the critical aspects of India’s foreign policy. Rarely debated in public, these groups have brought about some of the significant shifts in India’s policy towards a number of countries and regions. Prevailing political correctness however, precluded any meaningful discussion on the role played by various domestic groups in trying to influence, if possible dictate, India’s foreign policy formulation.

For long the domestic Muslim population played a significant role in influencing, shaping and at times determining India’s Middle East policy. Right from the days of nationalist struggle, India looks at the region through an Islamic prism. Despite draped in slogans such as secularism, Arab nationalism, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, India’s policy towards the countries of the region were shaped by the Islamic dimension.

In a rare departure, during an official visit to Israel in the summer of 2000, the then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh candidly admitted that perceived opposition from the domestic Muslim population partly contributed to the prolonged absence of diplomatic relations between India and the Jewish State.

This remark evoked strong reactions and criticisms from the opposition as well as from the intellectuals who challenged his religious rationale for India’s Middle East policy. However, the same sections were silent when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the American media last July that India would have to take into account the domestic ‘Shia factor’ while formulating its policy towards Iran and its suspected nuclear programme.

Whenever politically beneficial even the Left and other presumably secular parties have not been too reluctant to play the Muslim card. While the Left provided some fig leaf of anti-imperialist flavour, much of the protests in New Delhi and Mumbai against the visit of US president George Bush in March were led, organised and carried out by various Islamic organizations. Washington’s policies in the Middle East, especially towards Iraq, Iran and the Palestinians, provided ammunition to many Islamic groups, organizations and societies adopting virulent anti-American postures. India was no exception.

Last November the opposition parties organized a massive rally in Lucknow to protest against India’s decision to vote against Iran in the IAEA. The meeting where the Left parties vented out their anger against the government was held in the UP capital partly because Lucknow is a premier centre of Shia Islam in India. Some even sought to create an impression that voting against Iran was an anti-Muslim gesture on the part of the UPA government. Indeed for long, demands for normalization of relations with Israel were dismissed as an anti-Muslim strategy of the Hindu right.

If one scans official documents available outside India there are plenty of references to Muslim opinions as a factor in India’s Middle East policy, especially towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such concerns were expressed by Jawaharlal Nehru himself. But admitting them in public was not in tune with political correctness. As a result, India’s policy towards the region was always explained and justified through secularism, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and Arab nationalism. Even India gate crashing into the Islamic summit in Rabat in 1969 was seen as a ‘secular’ endeavour.

At the same time, it would be wrong to argue that only the Muslims influence India’s foreign policy over the years, various other ethno-cultural groups have also sought to promote their narrow agenda as India’s foreign policy.

During much of the 1980s India’s Sri Lanka policy was determined by the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu. Political parties saw the ethnic conflict as an opportunity to establish their credentials as true supporters of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. In the process they exerted considerable pressure upon the Central government and in someway even hijacked it. As a result the necessary, the distinction between the provincial view towards the ethnic conflict and the national policy towards the problem got blurred. A narrow regional interest was presented as India’s wider national interest and the country eventually paid the price with the life of Rajiv Gandhi.

India’s policy towards Bangladesh also suffers from similar malice. One of the major but silent problems faced by India is the large influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. In a large number of districts bordering Bangladesh, the foreigners constitute considerable percentage of population. Overwhelmed by the ethno-cultural heritage and linkages, the Bengali elite wield considerable influence in New Delhi’s policy towards Dhaka. Constantly advocating an accommodative policy, they have remained indifferent towards the issue of illegal migrants, Muslims and Hindus alike, from Bangladesh. While vote-bank politics prevented political parties to be indifferent, the problem is no longer confined to West Bengal and the Bengali elite has a lion’s share in this mess.

One could say the same thing about Nepal where the Hindu element plays a significant role. Driven by the keen to preserve Nepal as the only Hindu state in the world have compelled many to argue in favor of the preserving the monarchy even though the present King Gyanendra has been most unpopular ruler in the annals of Nepal.

India’s policy towards Pakistan policy also suffers from the domination of the Kashmiri factor. While the Punjabi factor is equally important, the same socio background had more positive impact upon the over all policy. The situation of Hindu Kashmir pundits who are a minority in Kashmir is a different story. Their seemingly excessive presence and influence upon India’s policy and their ethno-cultural linkages results in an excessive focus on the Kashmiri dimension of the problem. Any out of the box thinking would invariably require minimizing the Kashmiri factor in India’s policy towards Pakistan.

Having charted the democratic path, policy India would not be able to ignore the voices and concerns of various ethnic, national and religious groups. This is true for foreign policy formulation as well. Any contrary argument would not be undemocratic but would be unsustainable in the long run. At the same time, at times the interests of a particular group would not always synchronise with the wider national interest. As with the organised lobbying in the west these groups would seek to promote a narrow agenda; whether Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or wider Middle East.

While trying to accommodate such pressures it was up to the policy makers in New Delhi to see the big picture and evolve a non-partisan and consensual policy towards sensitive issues. Otherwise, India would be formulating a sectarian foreign policy that might serve the interest of particular groups but would be detrimental to its larger interests.

P.R. Kumaraswamy author is an Associate Professor, Centre for West Asian & African Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy in New Delhi. Before joining the Centre, during 1992-1999 he was a research fellow at the Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Jerusalem. He has submitted this article to “Asian Tribune”.

- Asian Tribune -

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