Print This Post
6 February 2019, Gateway House

Indian Foreign Policy in 21st Century

The following remarks were given by Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House as Distinguished Guest Lecturer at IIM Tiruchirappalli on February 3, 2019

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

post image

This is the transcript of a lecture that the author gave at IIM Tiruchirappalli. Click here to view details of the event.

I began studying the foreign policy of India within the larger context of international relations and global politics, over 50 years ago. The fascination with this subject, begun when I was as young as you are, has not gone away. It took me to obtain a master’s degree from a prestigious university, to teaching at a reputed college, and into the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Later, I completed the circle by becoming a student – as a pro-active member of the country’s strategic community.

Hence, I shall attempt to address you both as a scholar and a practitioner or a former diplomat. My objective is to put across this story in such a manner that you become more curious and interested in the subject. I am convinced that it will be of great relevance and value to you all, since you will soon join the workforce as managers and future business leaders of India.


But, first a word about the timeline. Am I about to predict as to what will happen in the world and especially in India’s external relations in a few decades from now – say, in 2090?

Of course, not! As someone said aptly, all scholars are experts on yesterdays, but none is an expert on the future. What we, as students of international affairs, do is to analyse past developments, study trends that shape the present, and then try to imagine, extrapolate and speculate intelligently as to what the future might hold. This is what I plan to do in respect of India’s management of its foreign relations.

Why Foreign Policy?

Another basic and quite legitimate question presents itself: ‘We are students of business management; what have we to do with foreign policy?’ My answer is: ‘Everything.’ Managers of today and CEOs of tomorrow need to have a firm grip on the constantly changing environment that impact global economy, politics and security as well as the way in which India’s government and the broader foreign policy and national security establishment relate to the world.  It is relevant to understand how our nation leverages its position in the comity of nations in order to safeguard and promote its national interest. This is not an easy but a truly complex task because India goes about securing it at a time when all other nations are involved in the same exercise! This explains why the forces and factors of competition, cooperation and conflict shape the international environment on a daily basis.

Some of you may have basic questions lurking in your mind: ‘What is foreign policy?’ ‘Who makes it in India?’ ‘Is it constant or does it change?’ ‘Does it involve politics only or also economics, technological, social and cultural aspects of a nation’s growth and interaction with the world?’ I will be happy to answer all your questions, but I am conscious that, being students at a prestigious institution, you are aware and well-informed. Besides, you have benefitted from lectures by other speakers on subjects relating to foreign affairs.

IFP: 72 years, 20 years

India has a long tradition of foreign policy and diplomacy. This began in ancient times. Chanakya is often considered as the father of our diplomatic tradition, although Hanuman ji and Lord Krishna may aptly be remembered as our earliest ambassadors.

In the colonial period, British India pursued a policy that was dictated primarily by the interests of the colonial power. However, with the advent of independence in August 1947, India’s own leaders took charge and decided that henceforth the foreign policy would conform to the nation’s defining principles and values, and its goal would be to protect and promote the interests of India that is driven by the age-old maxim – ‘The world is a family.’

The story of the evolution of India’s foreign policy from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi is both fascinating and long. Given the constraint of time, we may concentrate on the main trends in the past two decades i.e. 1998-2019, the period in which three prime ministers – Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi – led the country and left their stamp on its foreign policy. (The tenure of the third PM continues.) This examination should also build a base for us which may enable us to think loudly as to what to expect in the next one or two decades.

Dealing with Power Centers

Where does India fit in the international community? It is the second most populous country, soon to be the most populous when it surpasses China. It is one of the three ancient civilizations (Egypt and China being the other two) – 5,000 years old or even older – that survives as a modern nation-state. it is the 6th largest economy today, soon to be the 5th, when it surpasses the UK probably in course of this year. If positive trends continue, India is expected to become the third largest economy (in nominal GDP, dollar terms) by 2030. Then it will be smaller than only two economies – China and U.S. In terms of military expenditure, India ranks fifth on the global list.

So, how should we describe India: a super power, a major or big power? My answer is that today’s India is one of the important power centers in the world. It is a major Asian power and a global player. Further, it is fired by the ambition to emerge as a global power. But we still have quite a long way to cover before we reach that goal.

Economic development – accelerated, balanced, inclusive – is India’s primary mission. Our foreign policy needs to do everything possible to help us secure this over-arching goal. It does this by ensuring peace and security (on our borders, in the periphery, and the world at large), and by leveraging the nation’s international partnerships to obtain all that is needed to fuel economic development: markets, investment, technology, linkages, mobility of personnel, fair global governance, and a stable and favourable environment conducive for growth.

All the prime ministers I referred to earlier strove to achieve the same goals, backed by broad consensus on the essence of the country’s foreign policy. PM Vajpayee accorded the highest priority to overcoming India’s vulnerability in the nuclear domain, with nuclear-armed China viewed as the main adversary. The nuclear tests in 1998 initially created an adverse international environment, but our political sagacity and creative diplomacy helped India to be accepted gradually as a nuclear weapon state or nuclear power. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh carried forward the drive towards strengthening ties with the U.S.  and other western powers, while simultaneously pursuing the policy to maintain a balanced relationship with Russia and China.

During Prime Minister Modi’s innings since 2014, the government has made special, sustained and successful efforts to nurture close partnerships with the U.S., Japan and the European Union, which resulted in a higher flow of direct foreign investment and technology, a pressing need of the Indian economy. Defence and strategic cooperation between India and the U.S.  have strengthened considerably. Through regular annual summits, the India-Russia relationship has been stabilized and deepened, their strategic essence being kept in constant view. Relations with China came under much stress, particularly during the Doklam crisis in 2017. However, a well-thought out process of rapprochement was initiated with the rare Xi Jinping-Modi informal bilateral summit in Wuhan in April 2018. This has since been nurtured with much care and attention, and its results are the subject of public debate.

The short point is that India’s relationship with P-5 nations of the UN Security Council remains a top priority for policymakers. We need good, stable and cooperative equation with all of them and a few more such as Japan and Germany. The common thread running through the handling of this august responsibility by the three prime ministers is the continuing relevance of strategic autonomy.

India will continue to judge issues and relations on merit, to cultivate issue-based partnerships, to seek cordial relations with all major power centers, and to respond prudently to others’ initiatives to cultivate it. Multipolarity helps India in the pursuit of its interests. Unipolarity or bipolarity needs to be opposed steadily.

Further, multilateralism, both at the global level but also at the regional, sub-regional, and mini-lateral levels, is a phenomenon to which New Delhi attaches immense importance. At a time when globalization faces serious questioning and resistance by those very developed nations which primarily created it, India figures among nations in the Global South which favour a globalized world, to be secured through “reformed” multilateralism.

In this light, the U.S.- China relations are a subject receiving the closest possible attention not only from the government but also from India’s strategic and academic communities as well as the media. So, if you wish to know where the world is heading and what India’s role in it will be, you will be well advised to follow developments relating to major powers, especially the key issues between the U.S.  and China.

Other Geographies

Among the other regions of the world that are of interest to India, I propose to choose three to highlight the policy towards them. They are:

  • South Asia: Here, we look at India’s relations with its immediate neighbours in the bilateral context as well as the challenges and prospects for regional cooperation.
  • Indo-Pacific: Here, we examine the complexities of political, strategic and economic developments in the Indo-Pacific region, while also examining the impact and effectiveness of India’s Act East Policy.
  • Africa: Here, we analyse the key features of our country’s engagement with African countries in light of the ten guiding principles delineated by PM Modi and assess as to what all has been achieved to realize the potential of India-Africa partnership.

Future Challenges

From the foreign policy perspective, India faces today – and will continue to face in the foreseeable future – a mix of challenges. Some of these are:

  • Threats to national security: They come from the non-traditional sources such as terrorism and radicalization; from traditional sources such as China and Pakistan; and from new sources such as deficit in cyber security.
  • Economic: Adverse economic trends in the world have negative impact on our ability to grow. Economic strength is the biggest source of national security. Our aim has to be to attain 8% GDP growth rate for the next three decades. How this can be done has to be the national priority.
  • Fourth Industrial Revolution, particularly its effect on the future of work.
  • Energy and Climate Change
  • Blue Economy
  • Reform in Global Governance
  • G20 – the forthcoming chairmanship by India in 2022.


For a nation which desires to be a global power, India needs to

  • Substantially increase its Comprehensive National Power (CNP)
  • Secure greater harmony at home in conformity with our national mantra– ‘Unity amidst Diversity”
  • Reduce the people’s tendency to be insular and inward-looking, and
  • Ensure higher awareness in its youth, business, civil society, academia and media about the changing world stage and India’s growing role on it.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House

These remarks were given at a lecture that the author delivered at IIM Tiruchirappalli. Click here to view details of the event.

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact

© Copyright 2019 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited