In the middle of several problems, an encouraging and reassuring sign of recent times is that India’s foreign policy has held its ground in the middle of mounting pressures from various sides, at times even earning unexpected praise from traditional rivals and critics. However, the international situation remains volatile, slippery, and potentially catastrophic. Hence our foreign policy establishment cannot yet rest on its laurels as it will face increasing challenges in the coming days.
This appears clear enough. What has not yet been realized adequately, or at least is not reflected in the actual situation, is that a strong and balanced foreign policy, particularly in the case of an important and visible country like India, cannot exist in a vacuum and should have the support of conducive domestic policies in important areas which enhance and contribute to our foreign policy strengths.
The single most important aspect of the Ukraine war is that it must end as early as possible as its continuation, apart from causing immense daily distress, most of all to the people of Ukraine but also at a much wider world level, carries the inevitable risk of escalation as well as accidental or intended use/release of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, this is possible only after meeting legitimate security concerns of Russia as well as the safety of Russian speaking people of Ukraine.
The genuine concerns of both Ukraine and Russia were much clear- er before the invasion which started on February 24. But with each passing day, new complications have appeared. However, these complications should not be allowed to become overwhelming and peace efforts – ceasefire as well as longer-term objectives – must continue despite all the difficulties. Unfortunately, international efforts, particularly of the most powerful countries, are not yet guided predominantly by peace imperatives but instead are motivated by much narrower concerns. India, apart from protecting its key interests in the changing situation, must steadfastly pursue the objective of peace with justice. Reducing distress of the people of Ukraine (including minorities and those who speak the Russian language) and world peace must remain leading priorities.
There are many other countries which would like to be guided by the pursuit of twin objectives similar to India’s concerns – firstly, having the space and the freedom to protect their important interests without being threatened by any hostile action or future sanctions and secondly, preventing the escalation of war and securing a peaceful end of the Ukraine conflict as early as possible.
Hence, as a leading country with an assertive, independent foreign policy as well as a history of leadership in the international movement for non-alignment, India has a role cut out for it, to provide humble and consensus-based leadership to countries which are guided by these twin objectives and do not wish to join any power bloc.
In fact, there are few countries better equipped than India for this important role and India must, together with pursuing its other interests, assign adequate importance to this.
However, there is a catch. No country can aspire to this important leadership role without satisfying two key conditions at the domestic level. Firstly, it should have basic economic strengths and food security. Secondly, it should pursue (and should be seen to be pursuing) values of peace, harmony, human rights and justice in domestic policy. How can you preach peace with justice and harmony at the international level if you are perceived to be not pursuing this agenda at the domestic level?
Now in terms of the first criteria, despite several weaknesses on the economic and food security front, India will manage to pass the test of international acceptability. It is in terms of the second criteria that the situation in India is more difficult. This is where domestic policy is let- ting down India’s foreign policy. The government must take immediate and strong steps in the direction of inter-faith harmony, human rights, democratic norms, social justice and protection of minorities. Groups that exhibit extreme religious intolerance, stoke disputes over places of worship, and indulge in mob attacks on vulnerable persons, particularly minorities, must face strict action from the government. At present some of them appear to be enjoying patronage. The government must avoid authoritarian actions, particularly when these are seen to be targeting more vulnerable communities.
When India has faced international criticism on these counts, the government including the foreign policy establishment have often adopted a position of hurt and wronged innocence which is not matched by reality. It is much better to face the reality and take corrective action that is really needed.
Of course, significant improvement with respect to communal harmony and human rights is needed for its own sake and as an integral part of constitutional obligations, but in addition, this will also contribute significantly to strengthening India’s independent and assertive foreign policy.
If this happens, the entire opposition should also cooperate so that we can create a wide consensus within the country on an independent foreign policy based on peace with justice, and strengthen the cause of India’s principle-based leadership role in the international community.
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth NOW. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Earth without Borders.)