Indian foreign policy and decline in soft power in neighbourhood


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- India's declining soft power in the neighbourhood

The article examines the issue of declining political capital in India’s neighbourhood and the factors responsible for this. 

India’s standing in neighbourhood: Past

  • Not long ago, India was seen as a natural rising power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.
  • It was the de facto leader of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
  • It has historical and cultural ties with Nepal.
  • It enjoyed traditional goodwill and influence in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
  • It had made investments worth billions of dollars in Afghanistan and cultivated vibrant ties with the post-Taliban stakeholders in Kabul.
  • It had committed itself to multilateralism and the Central Asian connectivity project, with Iran being its gateway.
  • It was competing and cooperating with China at the same time.

India’s relations in with the neighbourhood: Present

  • India is perhaps facing its gravest national security crisis in 20 years, with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
  • SAARC is defunct.
  • Nepal has turned hostile having adopted a new map and revived border disputes with India.
  • Sri Lanka has tilted towards China.
  • Bangladesh is clearly miffed at the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
  • When Afghanistan is undergoing a major transition, India is out of the multi-party talks.
  • Iran has inaugurated a railway link project connecting the Chabahar port, on the Gulf of Oman, to Zahedan.

What are the factors responsible for this?

When we dig deep, three problems can be found which are more or less linked to this decline.

1) Alignment with US

  • As India started moving away from non-alignment, there has been a steady erosion in India’s strategic autonomy.
  • India’s official policy is that it is committed to multilateralism.
  •  When India started deepening its partnership with the United States, New Delhi began steadily aligning its policies with U.S. interests.
  • The case of Iran is the best example.
  • India’s deepening defence and military ties with the U.S.  probably altered Beijing’s assessment of India.
  • One of the reasons for the shift could be Beijing’s assessment that India has already become a de facto ally of the U.S.
  • The forceful altering of the status quo on the border is a risky message as much to New Delhi as it is to Washington.

2) Domestic politics

  • The passing of the CAA is regionalisation of the domestic problems of the countries in India’s neighbourhood.
  • Bangladesh took offence at the CAA and the National Register of Citizens, there were anti-India protests even in Afghanistan.
  • CAA also drove new wedges between India and the countries that had a Muslim majority and were friendly to India in the neighbourhood.
  • The abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was another such move.
  • But it damaged India’s reputation as a responsible democratic power and gave propaganda weapons to Pakistan.
  • The change of status quo in Jammu and Kashmir, could be another factor that prompted the Chinese to move aggressively towards the border in Ladakh.

3) Misplaced confidence

  • Great powers wait to establish their standing before declaring that they have arrived.
  • China bided its time for four decades before it started taking on the mighty U.S.
  • India should learn from at least these modern examples.
  • If it did, it would not have used high-handedness in Nepal during the country’s constitutional crisis and caused a traditional and civilisational ally to turn hostile.
  • The updated political map which India released in November rubbed salt into the wound on the Nepal border.

Consider the question “India’s standing in its neighbourhood has been on the decline for some time now. Examine the factors responsible for this.”


To address the current crises, India has to reconsider its foreign policy trajectory. It does not lack resources to claim what is its due in global politics. What it lacks is strategic depth.

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