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?


One thought on “Defining "National Interests" in Indian Foreign Policy

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