It’s time for India’s diplomacy to raise its ambitions: Fashioning a new narrative

Book LaunchLet’s focus on foreign policy underway today. How much of it is continuity; how much change? What do the changes signify? How much is substance; how much is optics? Some opinions have been offered already, not all of them without bias. I am sure that if we subject the diplomacy of the last year to a smell test, we can arrive at a reasonably clear conclusion. Think of the Madison Square Garden event and the presence of 30 plus members of the U.S. Congress. Recall the meeting with President Xi Jinping in Xian. Remember Barack Obama’s visit on 26th January. Or the bonding with Shinzo Abe in Kyoto. Assess the recent response of Nepal and Bangladesh on longstanding issues. Look at Op Rahat in Yemen and Op Maitri in Nepal. Consider the integrated tours of Central Asia, East Asia, or the Indian Ocean. So let me ask you: does this look like diplomacy as usual?

Let me try to convey this sense of change. A neighbourhood policy that puts a premium on connectivity, contacts and cooperation. Where required, one that is both reasonable and firm. A China policy that triangulates security interests, economic cooperation and international politics. The nuclear initiative – a matter as close to my heart as Rajamohan’s and one on which we cut our teeth four decades ago – has moved back into active terrain. We have seen forward movement with US, France and Russia and work in progress with Australia and Japan. The land boundary agreement with Bangladesh and the connectivity understandings have been game changers. Cooperation on power generation and our post-earthquake assistance have transformed the Nepal relationship. A coherent Indian Ocean strategy is under implementation. Visits to even nearby nations after decades and impending summits of the Pacific islands and of African states represent a different mindset. Our flagship development programmes are attracting favourable international response. The impression of India being somewhat easier for business has started to make an impact as well. And personal chemistry has emerged as a powerful tool in our diplomatic kit.

Some of these are new developments. Others are a decisive conclusion of an unfinished national agenda. Either way, they signal different times. They speak of greater confidence, more initiative, certainly stronger determination and obviously, express the growth of our capabilities. In many ways, they constitute both a larger footprint and a more intensive one. It is, therefore, time to ask ourselves whether India should raise its level of ambitions. Are we content to react to events or should we be shaping them more, on occasion even driving them? Should we remain a balancing power or aspire to be a leading one? Diplomacy involves management of contradictions in international politics and the pursuit, sometimes, of contradictory goals. In India’s current position, it is possible to make a case that simultaneous pursuit of multiple relationships creates a virtuous cycle where each can drive the others higher. Is it then time for greater activism?

Tactics also offer some insights. Confidence leads to initiatives and drives strategy. In contrast, reactive diplomacy is by nature one with a lower profile. Nor does it encourage an integrated view of regions where local balances sometimes offer advantages to be exploited. On the other hand, more pro-active diplomacy tends to look at a broader landscape. Even in its implementation, it overcomes the silos that are a particular bane of our working style.

Recent months have seen some innovations. Let me focus on a few to bring out their larger implications. First, developing narratives is part of a transition towards a leading power. You would have noted the attention paid to India’s sacrifices in the First World War a century ago. Fast forward to our extraordinary record in peace-keeping operations. Now look at the impressive disaster response efforts, including Nepal and Yemen. And see how the story of an India that has always done its utmost for the world strengthens our position as a responsible international stakeholder and our credentials for a permanent seat in the UNSC.

Two, the creation of a new lexicon and imagery can often be helpful in assimilating and implementing changes. The term ‘Neighbourhood First’ has a clear self-explanatory message. Even a shift from ‘Look East’ to Act East” is not without its meaning. The introduction of heritage and lifestyle into conversations on climate change is worth considering. The image of a ‘first responder’ in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations has great value. Valuing democracy creates as many bonds as countering terrorism. Reflecting these terms appropriately and effectively in our dialogues is truly worthy of consideration. And the use of social media, you will agree, has given our diplomacy a definite edge.

raja-mohan-modiA related issue is the importance of soft power. The impact of the International Day of Yoga on the world has been tremendous. We just felt it in Central Asia and in our BRICS and SCO meetings. This is perceived as a universal expression of Indian culture. Nothing could be more effective in bringing out the relevance of our heritage and traditions. A less noticed example is of India’s connections with Buddhism, a message that somehow got increasingly obscured after the 1950s. This too has great potential.

A fourth aspect is that of Persons of Indian Origin. Their achievements have long been broadly appreciated. But till now, we have perhaps not fully utilised their role as bridges to different societies. Motivating them is key to their making a fuller contribution to their land of origin.

And finally, do look at the direct linkage between our diplomatic activity and national development efforts. Today, many of our outcomes reflect the contributions that international partners can make in terms of resources, technology and best practices to various flagship programmes. This has actually led to the emergence of a very different agenda for our interactions.

Taken together, these developments have made themselves felt in only one year. India’s priorities are clearer with respect to its neighbourhood, its broader region, and in making a global impact. Diplomacy now helps to play a role in our national development. There has been a concerted effort to make full use of personal chemistry, narratives, culture, and our diaspora. The world is beginning to believe that we mean business, whether in business or otherwise. And as we proceed, perhaps it is time to reassess our ability to drive and lead on global issues, and be active and nimble rather than neutral or risk-averse.

(This is the edited text of remarks made by India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar at the release of Dr. C. Raja Mohan’s book “Modi’s World-Expanding India’s Sphere of Infuence,” in New Delhi on July 17, 2015.)

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