Emerging Contours of India’s Foreign Policy
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Emerging Contours of India’s Foreign Policy

By Aishwarya R J

Emerging Contours of India’s Foreign Policy

India's foreign policy has developed in response to evolving circumstances and is focused on defending and pursuing India’s national interests in the international arena. India has come a long way in its foreign policy, from defending its sovereignty to projecting its power. Currently, the increasing significance of the Indo-Pacific, India's active participation in the QUAD, and its efforts to export vaccines and lifesaving drugs during the COVID crisis have elevated India's status.

Geographic conditions, national morale, political organization, military strength, public opinion, socioeconomic conditions, the international milieu, and historical and traditional considerations have all shaped India's foreign policy. India’s historical roots have a considerable role in its foreign policy; the ancient texts like Arthashastra of Kautilya and his theories like Mandala, Sapthanga, Shadgunya, Upayas, etc. have turned out increasingly in today’s times as a yardstick to measure India’s foreign policy. The prominent leaders of the Indian independence movement, particularly Mahatma Gandhi with his advocacy of non-violence, provided India with the basis for its normative leadership in the world. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, pushing the ideas of Non-Alignment and Panchsheel while strongly opposing imperialism, colonialism, etc. extended hands towards developing and underdeveloped nations that were emerging out of war and colonial yoke.


Indian foreign policy trends post-independence can be examined through different schools of foreign policy. India's school of foreign policy can be divided into pacifist, pragmatic-centrist, and hyper-realist schools. The Pacifists advocate morality, peace, and internal development, while pragmatic centrists give primary importance to balanced economic and military growth and are more oriented to the neo-realist school of thought. On the other hand, the hyper-realists are focused on achieving higher economic growth and commensurate military strength by asserting India's national power. These schools of thought can be seen in the evolution of India's foreign policy from the Jawaharlal Nehru era to the Narendra Modi era, based on the policies adopted by the leaders based on the timeline and contemporary socio-political situations.


India’s foreign policy majorly focuses on engagement with all domains, including the economic and science and technology (S & T) sector. The Indian economy took a massive shift after the induction of New Economic Policy Reforms of 1991, which accelerated India’s status as a rising economic power and increased its trade relations via engagement. In the case of Sino-Indian relations, there has been a shift from political diplomacy to economic diplomacy in the last few decades. Despite having major border disputes, there is considerable economic cooperation between them. In the age of technological revolution, India is trying to extend its strategic autonomy in the fields of outer space, information technology, nuclear energy, medicine, biotechnology, artificial intelligence as well as promoting research and development (R&D) towards future technologies and other soft skill areas.

India, with its ‘Make in India’ initiative, is welcoming Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as well as developing indigenous production of defense equipment like Arjun tank, the light combat aircraft Tejas, Dhruv missile, INS Kalvari, etc, which would help Indians maximize its comprehensive national power. The emerging S&T areas where India has been focussing include cyber threat intelligence, big data, quantum technologies, etc. India has made major strides in pharmaceuticals, by being the pharmacy of the world. This has been quite evident during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This also shows how India accommodates its diplomacy along with working towards its goal of a healthy and sustainable world, by pursuing the Vasudhaiva kudumbakam concept of "the world is one family”. India’s "Unity in Diversity" and democratic principles adds to its benevolent credentials. With its efforts in the promotion of comprehensive wellness through International Yoga Day, it is clear that India is enhancing its soft power through the tool of cultural diplomacy. Moreover, India’s increasingly proactive stance on green technologies and efforts to combat climate change multilaterally highlights its growing leadership in the global environmental front.

However, despite having extended India's sphere of influence in various domains, India is not free from challenges where India faces both traditional and non-traditional threats to its national security. By being part of various international institutions and platforms like the United Nations and several regional organizations, India is trying to enhance its influence in international and regional affairs; and by countering Chinese influence in South Asia, it is trying to maintain the regional balance of power. India must contend with great powers such as the United States, China, and Russia, as well as an unfriendly neighborhood, and the constant threat of border skirmishes are a major source of concern. One of the leading economic challenges is in the energy sector due to the scarcity of natural resources. Strategic challenges also remain, with two hostile nuclear states in the vicinity and the rampant military modernization such as that of China. Internal issues such as ethnic conflicts within states, terrorism, insurgency, and the ongoing pandemic challenge are all causes for concern.

To counter these challenges, certain institutions work to shape India's foreign policy. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), along with other ministries and departments churn out policies to tackle traditional and non-traditional challenges. Political parties, bureaucracy, civil society groups, and the media also play a massive role in shaping foreign policy. The Office of National Security Advisor (NSA) also plays a pivotal role in the formulation of foreign policy as is evident from the recent talks between India's NSA Ajit Doval and China's State Councillor Wang Yi post-Galwan clash.

India’s approach in handling issues at both regional and global levels has elevated India as an influential player at global forums. While examining the regional approach from the time of independence, there have been many challenges: the Chakma and Teesta water issues with Bangladesh, fishermen issue with Sri Lanka, cross border terrorism across Kashmir with Pakistan, the Rohingya refugee crisis with Myanmar, and the recent Kalapani issue with Nepal are few examples. To give more emphasis to its neighbors, India took up policies such as Act East Policy which is the extension of the Look East Policy adopted in 1991, the Neighbourhood First Policy, the introduction of Panchamrit which talks about five pillars of Indian foreign policy, SAGAR in the Indian Ocean Region by being a net security provider in the region, being part of several regional organizations like SAARC, BIMSTEC, IORA, etc.

The global approach includes several initiatives adopted by successive governments, beginning with the policy of Non-Alignment by Nehru, which was helpful in the maintenance of India’s strategic autonomy during the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the implementation of economic reforms, Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization brought India a new outlook of inclusive economic development. India has been successful in handling powerful nations diplomatically. The best example could be India signing foundational agreements on defense with America just two decades after its nuclear test and a decade after the Indo-US nuclear deal, which includes BECA, LEMOA, and COMCASA.

At the same time, India has been engaging with Russia by sustaining decades-old defense cooperation and enhancing its engagement with China in terms of economic cooperation. India has become part of the QUAD with the US, Japan, and Australia intending to uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. On the other hand, India has also become a key member of BRICS and SCO, which have been setting up alternatives to the Western-dominated world order. India has pioneered multilateralism even during times of crisis, by building institutions such as the International Solar Alliance.

India, with its geostrategic position between two major chokepoints and as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean, must counter emerging traditional and non-traditional challenges in this area. It should also enable the shaping of global narratives in its favor. Most importantly, in the current context, India must deal urgently with vaccinating its population and subsequently help those countries in need, to enable quick global recovery from the COVID pandemic.

About the Author:

Aishwarya R J (ORCID: 0000-0002-6711-1202) is a first-year Masters's student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.

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