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5 August 2011, Gateway House

Indian foreign policy: Potential versus practice

While India’s foreign policy has gone a long way in earning global goodwill, there remains a vital element in its periphery that is absent from its diplomatic reach: Indian business. What can be done to bridge this gap between India’s foreign policy-makers and its business leaders?

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To find yourself, on the ground, in the campaign for India’s future role in the world is a rare opportunity indeed.  A citizen of the oldest democracy in the world, I was neither the first nor the last to be drawn to what had become the world’s largest—one that had sprouted from roots both ancient and modern on the other side of the planet.  Yet in many a conversation about the world—whether you call it flat, post-American, doomed or otherwise—India was the country whose influence seemed least proportionate to its position. As a student of foreign policy, I set out, early this summer, to see firsthand how this rising power engaged with the world—and what might explain the shortfall.

I had a unique perch at a fledgling foreign policy think tank in Mumbai, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.  Over two months of working alongside a brilliant, dedicated, ambitious, and optimistic team, I found that I had stumbled upon not just a start-up, but an insurgency.  In India’s long struggle to peace and prosperity, this was yet another battlefront.

In meetings and conversations with a wide range of businessmen, diplomats, journalists, and others, I found much to be hopeful about with respect to India’s global potential.  Every Indian diplomat I met in Mumbai and Delhi, both active and retired, displayed impressive intelligence, experience, insight, and tact.  The businessmen, whose enterprises were doing as much to introduce India to the world as its diplomats, were of similar character—shrewd, ambitious, and driven.

Few countries can boast more goodwill amongst the nations of the world. India takes pride in being what Indian parliamentarian and former junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor calls “a superpower of soft power”.   The 30-million Indian Diaspora forms grassroots linkages that few other countries can match.  The country’s long experience with conquest and colonialism is internalized; there is a deep-seated determination not to impose or intervene. That goes a long way to earning it global goodwill.

But my admiration gave way, expectedly, to the same frustration shared by so many of the people I spoke to about India’s foreign policy—all longtime observers of the persistent gap between potential and practice.  The common complaint: that India’s policy is largely reactive, haphazard, moralistic, and lacking in strategic vision.  And while it is unfair to call India a country of “no” when it comes to its foreign policy, Indians are much clearer about what they hope not to do, rather than what they must do, as the Gateway House Mumbai Consensus avers.

I saw a country uncomfortable with exercising power and influence in the traditional ways, but unsure how else to make a satisfactory impact on the world. Consequently, India is viewed as an unthreatening nation, whose rise no one fears, unlike China, whose brutal-yet-effective expansion of business and diplomatic interests are feared. While Indians accept their status as a backhanded compliment, it also feeds their worry that in the global race for status, nice guys may finish last.

What India needs is a broad strategic vision of how all its past experiences and future aspirations will fit together.  For this, it needs to be better equipped practically and intellectually.  For instance, the diplomatic corps, at under 800, is just a bit larger than Singapore’s 530 – and Singapore is the size of a single neighbourhood in Mumbai city. It must be expanded, dramatically.  It also needs the participation of many more agencies, especially the civic and corporate, to help develop a clear concept of its national interest and how to achieve it.

But of all the conceptualisers of India’s national interest, none are more conspicuously absent than India’s businesses, seen globally as the new overseas investors.  Gateway House chose to locate itself in Mumbai in large part to bridge this gap between India’s foreign policy-makers and its business leaders.   The growing entanglement of business and politics is by now common knowledge, but I was surprised to hear some senior executives dismiss the relevance of political context to their overseas ventures.   Having succeeded in new markets thus far without the active engagement of diplomacy, they see no reason why their success cannot continue as usual.

Of course it can’t. China succeeds because the interests of its business align with national objectives. Ditto with the U.S., the Europeans, and even the South Americans. No presidential overseas visit is complete without a large complement of executives, and no return home is more triumphant than the one with announcements of mega-deals which create jobs and draw investment back home. In India, business regards prime ministerial visits overseas as a giant bore that takes them away from their profit-making endeavours.

India even lacks the frameworks for understanding this relationship. Only one established national program offers serious and advanced study of international relations – and its reputation for a strong leftward slant compromises its stature.  Students who do study foreign policy abroad can’t find places to apply their knowledge back home.  Few truly independent think tanks exist, while India’s official diplomats struggle admirably, single-handedly, with portfolios that would be assigned to entire departments in any other major country’s Foreign Service.  It is a daunting hole to fill, and, as with many problems that face India, its enormity discourages many who then resign themselves to the status quo.

I saw enough to keep me cautiously optimistic. The Gateway House insurgency is only one of a growing network, and its founders note that an ecosystem for strategic study is developing.  Some corporations have started private universities that bring the necessary curricula to students. Think tanks around the world have begun to contact Gateway House, reaching out to what they see as an emerging private-sector foreign policy establishment.  Amongst the younger generation of executives, the inseparability of business and politics is more understood. From my own perspective at Gateway House, I saw new businesses joining each day to engage with the scholarship and discussions offered within.

The growth of Gateway House represents the growth of a new understanding.  There are no illusions about singlehandedly changing India, but rather putting out the ideas that can inspire India to change itself.  Where the think tank has been most successful—for example, at a recent event dedicated to discussing the Indian Diaspora—it has made its mark not by brute force, but by tapping into sentiments until recently dormant.

There is no doubt a long list of challenges that India will have to overcome, and even the best foreign policy will not accomplish that task.  During my time in India, what seemed to be a never-ending string of scandals in government erupted, a constant reminder of the political and regulatory reform so desperately needed in India.  Just days before my scheduled departure, the triple blasts of July 13 shattered the rush hour bustle of the city. Almost immediately, the work of livelihood was resumed by a city resigned to insecurity and the ineptness of the state.   Such problems may well prove to be insurmountable.

Yet like any good movement, this one wins converts.  My departure from Gateway House is bittersweet; excited at where this historic moment will lead, hopeful for an India more vocal and active on the global stage, wary of the challenges that remain, and sad to leave the frontlines of this exciting campaign.

If it does succeed, the India it produces will be better for the world.

Jonathan Yang is a former Summer Associate at Gateway House, and currently a student at Yale University.

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