[Burning issue] 75 Years of India’s Foreign Policy and its Success


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  • Recently, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar snubbed US  (while justifying its ties with Russia) over opting for Pakistan’s Dictatorship as a reliable partner over India.
  • The minister is being praised by several experts for such graceful criticism of the US and at the same time highlights the independent foreign policy conduct of India in recent times.
  • Thus, this edition of the burning issue will highlight the evolution of Indian foreign policy, its current standing and its way forward. 

What are foreign policy and diplomacy?

  • Foreign Policy is a framework within which the Government of a given country conducts its relations with the outside world in different formats i.e. bilateral, regional and multilateral or global.
  • Diplomacy on its part is a profession, skill and art of managing a country’s relations with the rest of the world to achieve the objectives of the country’s foreign policy. Broadly, Diplomacy can be political, economic or cultural, and ideally should work in tandem.
  • As a rule, diplomacy is pursued through established diplomatic channels and mechanisms. It may or may not always be transparent and in public knowledge. At times It can be pursued through back-door channels or informal Track 1.5 /Track2 mechanisms.

Objectives of Indian foreign policy

  • The first and foremost objective of India’s Foreign Policy –like that of any other country is to secure its national interests.
  • The scope of “national interests” is fairly wide. In our case it includes for instance: securing our borders to protect territorial integrity, countering cross-border terrorism, energy security, food security, cyber security, creation of world-class infrastructure, non-discriminatory global trade practices, equitable global responsibility for the protection of the environment, reform of institutions of global governance to reflect the contemporary realities, disarmament, regional stability, international peace and so on.
  • In short, our Foreign policy has at least four important goals– To protect India from traditional and non-traditional threats; To create an external environment which is conducive to inclusive development of India so that the benefits of growth can reach the poorest of the poor in the country; To ensure that India’s voice is heard on global forums and that India can influence world opinion on issues of global dimensions such as terrorism, climate change, disarmament, reforms of institutions of global governance, and To engage and protect Indian Diaspora.

Evolution of Indian foreign policy

(A) Phase of the cold war

  • Navigating the Cold War- The NAM way – The first high point of Indian diplomacy can thus be considered to be the decision of the then leadership not to take sides in the Cold War. This led to the now well-known Policy of Non-Alignment. It was a concept which was not only not understood but also fiercely opposed by the two global camps. India paid the price for it, with the West taking non-alignment as a cover for a pro-Soviet tilt, which led to its alignment with Pakistan, including militarily.
  • Leading the decolonization movement– The second, somewhat linked, the high point of that era was the role India played in becoming the voice of the former colonies of Asia and Africa and the moral and political force for decolonization. Many initiatives, epitomized by the Asian Relations Conference, were taken to give Asia its rightful place in a badly divided world.
  • Relation with Pakistan and China– The third high point relates to the period of the late 1950s and 1960s when India was embroiled in wars with both China and Pakistan. Indian diplomacy was called upon to rally world opinion against the aggressors and defend India’s interests bilaterally and in the United Nations. Despite the best efforts of Pakistan and China, India managed to limit the damage to its interests in the then State of J&K, and even blunt Pakistani efforts.
  • Bangladesh war The liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 and the events leading to it marked a turning point in Indian diplomacy. India successfully campaigned throughout the world to highlight the atrocities, crimes and killings perpetrated by the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan. It was a particularly daunting diplomatic task because this was also the time the US was making its opening to the Peoples’s Republic of China. Pakistan was co-opted in this effort, with the result that the Indian diplomatic machinery was pitted against the powerful US-Pakistan-China axis.

(B) Post-cold war phase

  • The nuclear weapon state-The the late nineties and early 2000s witnessed other major developments. India conducted its nuclear weapons tests in 1998 and became a nuclear weapon power. A major diplomatic effort was launched across the world to explain India’s security challenges. A special channel of communication was opened with the US which led to key strategic understandings between India and the US, leading to a breakthrough in the relationship.
  • Neighbourhood first- the Gujral doctrine- The Gujral Doctrine is a set of five principles to guide the conduct of foreign relations with India’s immediate neighbours. These five principles arise from the belief that India’s stature and strength cannot be isolated from the quality of its relations with its neighbours. Gujral’s policy of non-reciprocal accommodation led to the signing of a 30-year treaty between India and Bangladesh on December 12, 1996. NDA government (1998-2004) led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh have continued with Gujral’s foreign policy which emphasized the need to have “a peaceful, stable and constructive environment in India’s neighbourhood” which is being regarded as “vital for the goals of accelerated development for India and the region”. It, thus, recognises the supreme importance of friendly, cordial relations with neighbours.
  • Connection to ASEAN: The Look east policy– The period 1991-1992 saw the enunciation of India’s Look East Policy. India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992 and was upgraded to a Full Dialogue Partner in 1995. In 2005, India became a Partner of the East Asia Summit process. All these moves were meant to assert India’s natural links with the rapidly growing East Asian ‘tigers’, and establish its presence in China’s neighbourhood. The “Look East” Policy was the outcome of two major events – the strategic setback to India as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the balance of payments crisis of 1991.

(C) Post-2008 Financial Crisis

  • Membership to BRICS- BRICS is a grouping of the five emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, mooted in the year 2001 by Goldman Sachs, these five emerging countries from different regions of the world are increasingly seen as the centre of global power transition. Coinciding with the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-09 the main aim of the grouping is to foster cooperation, policy coordination and political dialogue regarding international economic and financial matters. India has been an active participant in this organisation from its inception. Maintaining economic growth that benefits India’s citizens in terms of job creation, GDP growth, and poverty alleviation is in the country’s national interest.
  • US partnership growth– The signing of the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement, India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the lifting of sanctions on technology transfer to India all happened in 2008. Put together these were breakthroughs with major ramifications. The Agreement on cooperation on civil nuclear energy was arrived at with bipartisan support in the US, thanks to Indian diplomatic efforts. It legitimized India’s nuclear weapon program and transformed India’s relations with the US.

(D) Current Phase (2014-Till Now)  

  • Balancing divergent coalitions- India’s foreign policy has been successfully managing several divergent coalitions at the same time, hence upholding its ‘strategic Autonomy’. Coalitions like SCO, RIC are being balanced with QUAD and JAI. Similarly, the Arab world is being balanced with a growing partnership with Israel and a relationship with US and G7 nations to that with Russia and China.
  • From Non-alignment to Multiple alignments– The nonaligned movement has lost its earlier relevance with the end of the Cold War and India no longer refers to nonalignment as the basis of its foreign policy. In the new context, we now speak of India pursuing a policy of multi-alignment or issue-based alignment. This explains the transformations of our ties with the US that includes the signing of various foundational defence agreements and substantial defence purchases, designation as Major Defence Partner, elaborate military exercises as well as membership of the Quad and a commitment to the Indo-Pacific concept. This explains also our membership in BRICS, the SCO and the continuation of the Russia-India-China dialogue. In other words, we are pursuing our interests in all forums without either exclusivity or entering into alliances with any set of countries.
  • Soft power projection- On 11 December 2014, a record 177 countries in the UN co-sponsored and voted in favour of declaring an International Day of Yoga on June 21st every year. This was an extraordinary display of India’s soft power and acceptability cutting across regions, religions, colours, and languages. Other than this, multiple temples are being opened worldwide, cultural programmes, 150 years of MK Gandhi’s Birth celebrations around the world testimonies India’s growing Soft power.
  • Aid diplomacy– The diplomatic effort launched by India to help global efforts in combatting the Covid pandemic in 2020-2021, however, was unprecedented in terms of its scale and reach. It established India’s role as the pharmacy of the world. Similarly, humanitarian operations such as Vande Bharat which brought back millions of Indians during the Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021 were the largest such exercise conducted. Operation Ganga was launched to bring back stranded Indian students from the war zone in Ukraine in 2022. The last few years have seen a much bigger deployment of Indian diplomatic efforts in the service of Indians overseas. Today, the interests of the almost 31 million-strong Indian diaspora are a top priority for the government.
  • Taking up leadership role– India has successfully created international coalitions that contribute to global welfare based on India’s national experience and strengths. These are specific and practical initiatives that bring diplomacy and real-life challenges together. Prominent among these are the International Solar Alliance, the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, and Traditional Medicine. We have entered into an era of proactive malalignments and building international coalitions of common interest.
  • Indo-pacific construct promotion– The geo-strategic events currently playing out in the Indo-Pacific region bears a resemblance to the political environment in which ancient Indian strategic thought in Kautilya’s Arthashastra took shape. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s characterisation of the region as representing the “emergence of multi-polarity and the benefits of rebalancing”, is starkly similar to how Arthashastra describes the political landscape of the ancient mahajanapada kingdoms. In many ways, the churn in the two oceans—the Indian and Pacific—symbolises a “return of history”, to borrow a phrase used by Jaishankar at the first edition of the Indo-Pacific Business Summit in June 2021. The Indo-Pacific, seen through a maritime prism, necessitates a strategic preoccupation characteristically different from a purely continental one.

Long cherished goals of Indian foreign policy: The Challenges

  • Reform global political and financial system- India since the cold war phase has been trying to reform the global political system represented by the UN General assembly, its several bodies, WTO, and IMF to make them more democratic and representative thus making them work in favour of least developed nations also.
  • Permanent UNSC seat- Minister Jaishankar has aptly pointed out that excluding India which will in time be the most populous state in the world and the third largest economy would call into question the representative nature of the UNSC. India has recently started putting strongly its demand for a permanent seat at UNSC and overall UNSC reforms. India has formed a grouping called ‘G4 nations’ including Germany, japan and brazil to promote the idea of UNSC reforms.
  • Pakistan conundrum- India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed giants of South Asia. Disputes over their shared border and the territory of Kashmir have been a recurrent source of conflict between the two countries throughout their histories, and new geopolitical alignments, changes in conventional and nuclear military capabilities, and deep mistrust continue to forestall any normalization of ties. China’s rise and the attendant great power competition have complicated both Islamabad’s and New Delhi’s strategic calculus as they both look to balance relations with Washington and Beijing.

Way forward

  • Adding Ethical Values to Indian Foreign Policy: Mahatma Gandhi said, politics without principles is a death trap. India should move towards ethical persuasion, thus reclaiming moral leadership on the world stage similar to NAM.
  • Becoming a Rule maker and not just a rules taker: India should actively assert itself during the formulation process of world norms, from the environment to economics.
  • Balancing approach: India must remain balanced in the global rivalry between China and the U.S., as what happens in Asia affects us most. At a regional level, India should hedge Chinese expansion by cementing ties with Vietnam, Japan and Australia.
  • Promote world peace: The focus of India’s foreign policy should not be limited to seeking a permanent seat in Security Council or revenge for historical wrongs but welfare and peace should be given more importance.
  • Finding new partners: India needs the world for energy and other resource endowments. Finding partners who share a common interest in terms of energy security, climate change, cyber security etc is the way forward
  • Focusing on neighbours also: A concerted focus on the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) is needed given China’s increasing presence in both regions.


  • Today, India is a significant player on the global stage by its strength as a rising power. It is a member of the G20, is invited to the G7 meetings and is a lead player in Climate Change negotiations through its initiatives in this area. 
  • We are living in a dynamic world. India’s foreign policy is therefore geared up to be proactive, flexible as well as pragmatic to make quick adjustments to respond to evolving situations. In the implementation of its foreign policy, India, however, invariably adheres to a set of basic principles on which no compromise is made.
  • As we celebrate 75 years of our Independence, the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, we should be proud of our diplomatic history and the contributions to it by successive generations of Indian diplomats as well as governments. 
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