While there has been much talk about the COVID-19 crisis changing the world order and shaking the present-day geopolitics, the process has been long-drawn and gradual for India. It started much before the Pandemic, and the ongoing Pandemic seems to be only cementing the changing geopolitical dynamics for India, as people’s aspirations are converging more and more with government’s global outlook. India’s relations and official standing on some of the key issues- US policy, Israel policy and recognition of Taiwan, have become somewhat aligned to the popular sentiment within the country. This is partly a process of course correction in India’s foreign policy and partly a consequence of changing geopolitical dynamics.
Bridge in people’s aspirations and government’s worldview
Starting with the United States, India emerged as an English-speaking country round about the same time when the Cold War era also came up. The people of the country related more strongly to the United States, while they did not share much in common with the Soviet Union.
But the national leadership at the time was such that we ended up tilting towards the USSR in a largely bipolar world. India’s first Prime Minister Nehru had a thing for Fabian socialism and a romantic notion of the Soviet Union’s socialism that dated back to the 1930s when Nehru visited the Soviet Union the first time.
India thus declined to incline towards the US, and the latter decided to make Pakistan its client State. For a long time, Indo-US ties remained cold.
When it comes to Israel, the successive Congress regimes made the strategic blunder of approaching a foreign policy matter through the lens of domestic political concerns. The UN bodies have a strong tendency to pass Resolutions against Tel Aviv, and the Congress governments wanted to appease certain constituencies within India. Therefore, India, or Congress governments to be precise, championed Palestine’s cause for a long time.
New Delhi kept voting against Israel, thus denying it the right to assert its territorial claims in a largely Islamic region that the Jewish country is located in. People of India however always saw a strategic ally in Israel. There is recognition of Tel Aviv’s right to fight Islamist extremism within India, primarily because India has first-hand experience of what damage radicalism can cost- Moplah riots in 1921, the traumatising 1947 Partition and later Pakistan-backed terrorism into India.
India and Israel should have been natural allies from the word go, but for a long time our government was on Palestine’s side.
On the Taiwan front, Nehru simply went with Beijing by snapping ties as early as 1949. At that time, the world was still confused about who is the real China- the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the Republic of China (Taiwan). Only in the late 1970s, there was a decisive shift in global opinion towards the PRC after US President Jimmy Carter announced that he would sever ties with Taiwan and recognise PRC.
Nehru went ahead with the Panchsheel agreement in the false hope of making peace and bolstering ties with the Dragon, even though India’s first Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel remained sceptic of Chinese expansionism and Dr. Ambedkar clearly expressed disagreement on being too friendly with China.
Recalibration of foreign policy
But over the past one decade or so, there is a clear recalibration of India’s global outlook in line with national aspirations and sentiments. In the case of the United States, this really started with the Indo-US nuclear deal during the days of the Manmohan Singh government.
With the advent of the Modi era things have moved ahead quickly. For the United States, it was natural to tilt towards India after Pentagon realised that it could not defeat Taliban militarily because Islamabad was using US aid to bolster Taliban and harm American interests, and for India, it was a question of practicality as non-alignment was too idealistic an idea even at the time of its conception.
India had to wake up to the realities of a post-Cold War era world, where Russia-US bipolarity no longer exists. New Delhi has managed this without losing on strategic autonomy.
Trump has started cutting aid to Pakistan, while PM Modi has not shied away from building closer, strategic ties with Washington. And this has the mandate of the people as was visible from the massive reception for Howdy Modi and Namaste Trump events. The United States values its ties with India, and India appreciates that.
When it comes to Israel, PM Modi has ensured that the true potential of strategic ties between the two countries is explored. PM Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, and before we knew he developed a strong bond with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. India had ignored Israel for far too long but PM Modi energised bilateral ties effortlessly.
There is also a welcome shift in how India votes at the UN, and only last year India cast an “unprecedented” vote in favour of a decision introduced by Israel at a UN body that objected to granting consultative status to a Palestinian group. India hasn’t severed ties with Palestine at the same time, because New Delhi’s approach is one of subtly and gradually repositioning itself rather than unnecessarily pushing the envelope.
The latest course correction is happening in Taiwan ever so subtly, as New Delhi has dropped hints with slight denouncements of the “Once China Principle”. In the COVID context India faces pressure from its allies to redraw its Taiwan approach. And China doesn’t really have much to offer apart from decades of border tensions and the Dragon’s aggressively dominant approach. Therefore, the Modi government decided to send two BJP MPs for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s swearing-in ceremony- a departure from 2016.
Thus, there is a clear convergence of the popular sentiments within the country and India’s official foreign policy. This is a remarkable feat, particularly because the Modi government has been able to do this seamlessly and gradually, avoiding knee-jerk reactions that could hog limelight all along. This is deft diplomacy, and helping India’s repositioning is a career diplomat in its foreign office, S. Jaishankar.