Defining "National Interests" in Indian Foreign Policy

Pratyush Chandra

There has been a tremendous growth in politico-intellectual interest in interpreting Indian foreign policy. On the one hand, journals and newspapers are overflowing with analyses of India’s international activism, and on the other, we find a rise in institutions or ‘think-tanks’ specializing in it, both within India and abroad. However, it can be effectively contended that there is rarely any novelty in the approaches taken by these intellectuals, institutions and politicians on the issue. Most of them are restricted to producing permutation and combination of preconceived and ill-defined notions of “national interests”, “security interests”, “terrorism”, “pre-emptive measures” etc. Even progressive and ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourses are unable to go beyond conceiving the Indian policies as those of a ‘comprador’ third world ruling class, submitting to external pressures. This leads to analyses limiting themselves to mere tautological descriptions of the policies, different only in tone and of course in humanist tenor, but rarely disputing on the basic foundations of policy-making, that inform even the rightist jingoism and centrist pragmatism.

1. Indian “National Interests” – the Left-Right-Center Combined

The domestic opposition to Indian rulers’ intervention in international politics today is broadly confined on the following lines:
(1) They are compromising on the “national interests”,
(2) They are coming under the “American pressure”,
(3) As the consequence of (1) and (2), they are betraying their erstwhile “Non-Aligned Movement” (NAM) comrades.

Such tenor of opposition itself provides the Indian state a viable framework to rationalize its position. It can restrict itself to demonstrating how “national interests” are being served and sovereignty is not compromised, that it is taking its own decision and is being treated as an equal partner in the international strategic forums; further, that it is “leading” its erstwhile NAM comrades by actively representing them and supporting their political and economic sovereignty. This is effortless defense since there exists no need to defend the basic premises of the Indian foreign policy. There is unanimity across-the-board over the sanctity of “national interests”, sovereignty, the principle of “not coming under any external pressure” and India as a leader of the “third world” or “NAM” countries. The opposition counts on the evidences on which these sanctified principles are being violated, while the government in power provides counter-evidence on the same lines.

Recent debates “on the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), the July 18 Agreement with the United States, the September vote in the IAEA and the recent deliberations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)” are typically confined to this mode of discourse – whether led by the leftists, rightists or centrists.

Seemingly, there is no disagreement on India’s right to be a “Nuclear Weapon State” while remaining “committed to the goal of complete elimination of nuclear weapons”. Not long ago, when with the rightist Vajpayee government’s nuclear tests in 1998, political forces of all hues and colors not only refrained from criticizing the act, but on the contrary they fought to take the credit for promoting researches which led to India’s nuclear capability. Nobody apparently denies the ideal “that the best and most effective nuclear non-proliferation measure would be a credible and time-bound commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons from existing arsenals, including India’s own nuclear weapons” and that we should “have no desire to perpetuate the division between nuclear-haves and have-nots”. However still, the left, right and center all are guilty of aspiring to see India as “a permanent member of the Security Council”. They all want India to demonstrate “a growing capability to shoulder regional and global responsibilities”, and “focus … increasingly on trans-national issues that today constitute the priority challenges – whether it is terrorism or proliferation, pandemics or disaster relief”. Further, “we cannot sit out the debates on the big issues of our times. Our interests demand a vigorous and articulate diplomatic effort that explains our positions and advances our interests.”

The quotes above are taken from a single lecture by the Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and International Security” (1), wherein, despite its usual diplomatic nature, he eloquently presents the unanimous aspirations of the Indian political elites. Everybody (left, right and center) will agree with him that India’s approach to nuclear non-proliferation [or on everything] should be “a consistent one, a principled one and one grounded as much in our national security interests as in our commitment to a rule-based international system.”

While defending the recent decisions by the Indian government and its agreements with the US, he says,

“There is a continuity and consistency in our approach that may sometimes be masked by the particularities of a specific decision…. What appears to some observers as inordinate external influence over our decision-making in sensitive areas is, in fact, rooted in our own well-considered and independent judgment of where our best interests lie. This is in keeping with our tradition of non-alignment… We must adjust to change, change inherent in our emergence as a Nuclear Weapon State, change inherent in the sustained dynamism and technological sophistication of the Indian economy, and, as a consequence, change in global expectations of India as an increasingly influential actor on the international stage.”(2)

As a bureaucrat who is supposed to be “above politics”, Shyam Saran is not wary of making it a point to stress on the continuity and consistency in the policies of the Indian state, always reminding of the consonance of the present left-supported ‘centrist’ government’s policies with those of the erstwhile rightist Vajpayee government. In his defense of the Indian vote on the IAEA resolution on Iran, he stressed in his press briefings:

“I do not think that you should interpret India’s position as being aligned on the Left or on the Right or aligned with this group of countries or that group of countries. I think India has all along taken decisions on issues of concern to itself on the basis of its own assessment, and on the basis of its own national interest. So, the question of this representing a shift in India’s policy does not arise.”(3)

And he is obviously not wrong. All depends on how you define the “national interests”. And on their definition there is hardly any difference between various parties involved in the debate. One side says the government serves them, other side denies it; but nobody seeks to describe what those interests are and which sections of the society determine them.

2. “Uses of Domestic Dissent”

This fact of unanimity makes all mainstream approaches on the Indian foreign policy merely repetitive. They rarely question the basic foundation of the policy decisions. One says “compromises”, other notes “cooperation”; one notes “subjugation”, other says “equal partnership” etc. But this discursive exercise has a definite ideological role. Howsoever, this exercise seems futile, it significantly emasculates any decisive domestic opposition to the Indian state as they combine in unity on making it evermore “stronger” in the name of challenging ‘external pressure’, giving ‘international leadership’, and serving ‘national interests’ etc. It is this unanimous ‘nationalist’ tone in the Indian politics that has left the Indian hegemonic [militarist] exercises complementing and supporting the expansion of ‘national capitalist’ interests internationally unchecked.

The Indian interventions in the politics and economy of its neighboring countries and elsewhere are universally termed self-conceited and ‘big-brotherly’, but not imperialist. Hence what is seen as required is simply correcting this ‘aberration’, making the Indian policy towards these small and weak neighboring countries more ‘responsible’. The preconceived notion of a ‘third-world’ country imposed on the late capitalist countries does not allow the analysts to perceive their leadership as serving ‘national’ political economic interests by maneuvering internationally.

Further, any gesture of confrontation with the First World is termed ‘anti-imperialist’. This ‘anti-imperialism’ stresses the importance of the reconstruction of a ‘non-aligned movement’ and ‘south-south’ cooperation. But it does not take into account the material basis of a state-to-state cooperation between the “third world” countries. It does not consider the contradiction inherent in the ‘nationalist anti-imperialism’ in countries like India. At the juncture when India owns 35 percent of the FDI in Nepal, when it is the biggest investor in Sri Lanka since 2002 and has Bhutan and Maldives as perfect clienteles, do we expect India to lead another NAM? And if it does, what will be its role? Will it not be similar to that of Germany’s in EU, howsoever subservient to the US or any other global hegemonic power? Backwardness or lopsidedness of the Indian capitalism and society does not stop it from becoming expansionist and imperialist.

The indigenous corporate capitalist interests (immaterial of the adjectives we might choose to characterize them) today frame the agenda for the Indian state in the international scenario, whether pro-US or otherwise. These interests are formidably conscious and mature, as can be seen from the way the Indian state and capital combines their various strategies – a militarist combination with the US-Israel nexus, supposedly “progressive” alliance with various “third world” powers in WTO, independent oil dealings with varied forces, investments in oil fields, offer of lines of credit to developing countries in Africa and Tsunami affected countries, pipeline diplomacy and readiness to militarily-politically support all these. We cannot simply isolate one aspect of the Indian capitalist interests and generalize it to grasp their hydra-like nature. Competition and collaboration are inherent in the capitalist political economy. Will it not be just and appropriate to use this same principle to assess the “Indian designs”? Or else, we will only support them asking the Indian state to be “stronger” and will convert the opposing voices to mere instrument in its international bargaining. (4)


(1) Lecture on “Nuclear Non-Proliferation and International Security” by Foreign Secretary Shri Shyam Saran at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, October 24, 2005, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
(2) Ibid.
(3) “Press Briefing by the Foreign Secretary on the events in UN and IAEA”, September 26, 2005, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.
(4) In fact in a recent article by Harish Khare such use of dissent has been proudly advocated. See Harish Khare, “Uses of Domestic Dissent in Foreign Policy”, The Hindu, October 26, 2005.

For a different interpretation of Shyam Saran’s lecture, see Siddhartha Varadarajan’s India submits to the Bush doctrine?

India’s “Persian Puzzle” – A Possible Solution

Pratyush Chandra

[The recent Indian vote on the IAEA resolution is being generally interpreted as a sign of the Indian state’s subservience to the US. However, the reality belies this simplistic analysis. At the risk of being labelled economic determinist, this article brings out some facts that indicate towards the growing expansionist interest of the Indian capital. It is this expansionism that drives the Indian state to defy its ‘non-alignment’ past and design its own game-plan, which at least for now coheres with the US global strategies.]

India has finally voted in favor of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution on Iran. Everybody was speculating that at last an issue has come up that will break the pace and uniformity of the growing Indo-US relations. But India has made its choice clear in the world market of strategies and alignments. There are various lines of explanation that dominate the discussion on the rationale of India’s choice on the issue. The most prevalent one is of course based on the belief that the “third world” states are congenitally incapable of taking such decisions except under the pressure from the West. This view generally presumes these states to be ‘soft’ and their ‘national’ hegemonic interests to be weak, which can easily be swayed by the external pressures. Further, any gesture of confrontation between these states and the Western states especially the US is generally taken as potentially anti-imperialist. However, this view cannot explain the Indian case as it does not capture the basic political economic processes that are increasingly integrating the Indian hegemonic interests within the global strategic alignments and realignments.

The Official Justification

Even before voting for the resolution, the Indian government had been categorically stressing that there was “no difference in objectives between India and the United States vis-à-vis Iran even if the two sides differ on tactics”.(1) Further, even when India stressed on “diplomatic consultations to evolve an international consensus on how to deal with Teheran’s decision to continue its uranium enrichment programme”, it never wanted “another nuclear weapon state in its neighbourhood”.(2) Under these circumstances India’s vote must not be taken as a surprise.

The Indian foreign ministry is not wrong when it says that India’s vote on the resolution was actually in line with whatever had already been happening. This continuity is what constitutes the “evolutionary” foreign policy of India, as envisaged by its present Foreign Minister. The Indian leadership has consistently expressed all its international dealings in terms of “national interests”, “security interests”, etc. Once again, with regard to its vote on the IAEA resolution, the justification given by the Indian state is based on an ideological depoliticization of the so-called “national interests”. In the words of the Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran:

“I do not think that you should interpret India’s position as being aligned on the Left or on the Right or aligned with this group of countries or that group of countries. I think India has all along taken decisions on issues of concern to itself on the basis of its own assessment, and on the basis of its own national interest. So, the question of this representing a shift in India’s policy does not arise.” (3)

However, it all depends on the way you define the “national interest” which under neoliberalism (the professed ideology of the Indian state at least since 1991) means nothing but what provides leverage to the Indian businessmen and their businesses.

The Context

While analyzing India’s strategic maneuverings internationally, the analysts very rarely note their economic dimensions. It is scarcely admitted that India’s relationship with other developing countries after 1991 has been increasingly based on the export of capital and the Indian investment abroad. And in most of the cases, such economic relationship has been simultaneously equipped with militaristic aid to those states. India has been offering credit lines to many Afro-Asian countries that they can utilize for infrastructure building and other business purposes with a condition that they will employ Indian companies. India’s ‘non-aligned’ past has allowed it to have a major share in the capitalist subordination of the backward economies in Africa and Asia. In fact, the rhetoric of non-alignment (“South-South cooperation”) plays an efficient ideological role in rationalizing the expansionist drive of the Indian capital. Recently after India refused the foreign aid for its own Tsunami victims, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh, while offering Indonesians “concessional credit for reconstructing roads, buildings, harbours, ten units of fully equipped hospitals”, rattled proudly that “they were lumping us with the others but now we are seen separate offering our help and assistance”. (4)

Definitely, since 1991 India has been consistently endeavoring to be recognized as a faithful ally of the US. Its nuclear graduation and global politico-economic interests have shown the US leadership that it is a force to be reckoned with, and its subordination provides one of the most reliable allies to oversee the Indian Ocean and meet up with China. In recent years the growing energy needs of the Indian capital has forced the Indian State to invest in the oilfields abroad – India has operating assets in Sudan, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, Libya, Syria, Sakhalin Islands, etc. It has been acquiring competitive amounts of shares in foreign oil companies. All these make India a player in the global oil politics too both as an investor and a consumer.

The Indo-US relationship is thriving in this context, and has a clear-cut ‘material’ semantics. India requires not having a confrontation with the “global police” state when its capital is struggling to stabilize its share in the global pool of surplus value, of which a major portion comes from the American market and the Indian investment in the US. Further, by providing dual citizenship to the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) recently, the Indian state has further increased its own responsibility of protecting NRI capital in exchange of ‘rent’ and the assurance of repatriation of profit.

In this scenario, apparently one may interpret the Indian vote on the IAEA resolution as an appeasement of the US-led ‘coalition’. But here too there is a vital interest of the Indian capital that is playing an important role. The recent pipline diplomacy between Iran, India and Pakistan is quite well known. It is impossible to interpret the Indian vote, which is unequivocally affirmative (not even abstention!) on a resolution that is meant to isolate Iran, without connecting it to the facts of the Indian ‘oil politics’ in general and its pipeline diplomacy with Iran in particular.

The Nature of India’s Oil Interests and the Global Coalition

Recently, while rationalizing the Indian nuclearization, the Indian Defense Minister noted:

“India is a heavily energy deficient country. Of all the variables that could hinder India’s economic progress, energy scarcity and dependence are probably the most serious. Seventy percent of our crude oil is imported. Per capita energy consumption presently is only 1/5th of the world average. Considering a high growth rate of around 8 percent of GDP per year in the coming years, growth of oil demand is projected to be 6 percent per annum. If so, dependence on oil imports could rise from 70 percent to 80 (percent), to 85 percent over the next two decades. It is therefore imperative for us to look for cost-effective and long-term alternatives to meet our energy requirements. Indian oil companies are currently actively involved in a search for energy in the form of oil and gas fields, pipelines, LNG, and other new and non-conventional sources. But most hydrocarbon resources underline our dependence on limited reserves and others for this critical requirement. They also carry scope for avoidable strategic energy rivalries.” (5)

The clue to India’s alignment with the US hegemony in the Middle East lies here. Its energy deficiency, yet the desire and ability to proactively make up for it, makes the Indian rulers a player in the Middle East conflicts. Major, yet low productive oil producing industrialized countries, including the United States (6) and oil deficient industrialized economies can influence the global oil price only by appeasing or isolating OPEC countries. Since a major determinant of the oil price today is the differential oil rent appropriated by the highly productive oil economies like those of the Middle East, “cost effective” energy appropriation requires reducing this rent. The bully tactics (“either with us or against us”) of the US and other Western powers in the Middle East has been mainly geared towards this purpose.

The increasing Indian investment in the oilfields abroad was definitely triggered by the need to satisfy the domestic energy requirements, but ultimately as it happens with all capitalist ventures, these investments eventually develop their own logic of earning profit. With increasing divestment in the state owned oil companies of India and intrusion of private capital, this becomes furthermore true. Hence, the need to minimize the differential oil rent, which the oil companies have to pay to the oil producing countries, becomes an important aspect of India’s international political intervention, too. So this unity of ‘economic’ interest serves as the background for the increasing Indian intervention in the Gulf politics and that too in consonance with the US hegemony and other non-OPEC powers. India’s readiness to refuel the American warships during the First Gulf War and later during the Afghan War all point out that there exists an Indian consciousness of possible material gains from its subservience to the US led coalition. However, because of a formidable domestic anti-imperialist opposition, until now the capitalist preference in India could not come out as openly as it has in the vote on the IAEA resolution.

It is worthwhile to note that that a major hitch in the Indo-Iranian negotiations on the proposed pipeline was also related to pricing. “India has taken the position that any price above the US$3 per million British thermal units (BTUs) currently being paid by its power and fertilizer sectors for gas on the international market is unacceptable. Iran, in contrast, appears to be seeking more than US$4 per million BTUs, a rate that will only go higher if Pakistani transit fees are added.” (7) This might have been one of the major reasons in persuading the Indian state to go with the scheme of the West, since the isolation of the Iranian regime and its consequent desperation to earn revenues in the midst of enveloping sanctions can make the Iranians more compliant to the Indian demands and increase the weight on the side of the Indians in the negotiations for the pipeline.


(1) The Times of India, September 16, 2005
(2) The Hindu, September 21, 2005
(3) “Press Briefing by the Foreign Secretary on the events in UN and IAEA”, September 26, 2005
(4) Indian Express, January 8, 2005
(5) Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s Talk on “India’s Strategic Perspective”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, June 27, 2005
(6) Cyrus Bina, “The Economics of the Oil Crisis: Theories of Oil Crisis, Oil Rent & Internationalization of Capital in the Oil Industry”, Merlin Press, London, 1985.
(7) A.J. Tellis, “India As a New Global Power: An Action Agenda for the United States”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, 2005