The story of Indian diplomacy in the last 75 years is closely aligned with the evolution of India as an independent country after the end of British rule. In 1947, we faced the twin challenges of building a nation and having to deal with the effects of partition of the country.
75 Years of Independence
There was a third challenge too. India as an independent nation was born into a world that was in the throes of the Cold War, and the ideological battle between communism and capitalism. In addition, the nuclear arms race was accelerating. Before we realized it, India was being pulled by two opposing camps. In the toxic global atmosphere there was little time and patience for India’s priorities which at that time were economic and social reconstruction and managing the creation of Pakistan.
Navigating the Cold War
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 a cover for a pro-Soviet tilt, and which led to its alignment with Pakistan, including militarily.
Leading the decolonization movement
The second, somewhat linked, 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.
Attention to Africa
While Africa always held a special place in the Indian psyche and enjoyed great empathy in the country, the hosting of the first ever full scale Summit between India and the entire African continent comprising all 54 countries in 2015 in India by Prime Minster Narendra Modi was the most ambitious outreach ever to Africa by India.
Diplomacy in the War years
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 and K, and even blunt Pakistani efforts.
The Dalai Lama
The escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and refugees from Tibet to India in 1959 was a sensitive issue and required careful handling. Over the last sixty years India has successfully hosted His Holiness despite enormous pressure from the Chinese, upholding India’s tradition of giving refuge to the persecuted and those in danger.
Birth of Bangladesh
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 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.
The liberation of East Pakistan and birth of independent Bangladesh is a testimony to the tenacity and success of India’s diplomatic, political and military efforts. There were other minor but crucial decisions related to this period which in hindsight proved to be vital. One such was the decision to withdraw the Indian Army from Bangladesh within three months of the fall of Dhaka, before it could be seen as an occupation Army. The other was the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971, prior to the Liberation, which served as the strategic backbone for India’s support to the people of East Pakistan.
The visit of the then Prime Minister to China in 1988 marked a major attempt to normalize relations with China. India’s relations with China, including the management of the border and periodic clashes have occupied an increasing amount of time and effort of India’s diplomacy. In the face of recent provocations by China in the Doklam Plateau in 2017 and the massive military build up and aggression in 2020 in the Western Sector, India firm and uncompromising diplomatic response helped to buttress military efforts.
Opening to East Asia
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. The Policy, which has matured and evolved under successive governments is today a central pillar of Indian foreign policy.
The Look East Policy was upgraded to the “Act East” policy in 2014 and is today the bedrock of India’s Indo-Pacific Policy. It led to the decision to invite the Heads of all the ASEAN countries as the Chief Guests for the Republic Day celebrations in 2018.In the same year, the Indo-Pacific policy was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Singapore. This has been accompanied by the revival of the QUAD as a grouping of like minded democracies. All of these have taken India’s commitment to the Asian continent to a qualitatively new level.
Israel and the Arabs
To the West of India, a fundamental change in India’s traditional foreign policy simultaneously took place with the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. The opening to Israel was a defining moment for India’s approach to the Muslim and Arab world. From humble beginnings, the relationship with Israel has today become one of the most critical ones for India, and stands strong and resilient.
Thrust towards the Gulf and success of the abrogation of Article 370
At the same time, Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi has seen a major breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE, as well as other Gulf States. In addition, India has been able to bridge the Shia-Sunni divide. The regularity of Indian Prime Ministersvisits to Saudi Arabia has grown significantly with visits in 2010 and most recently in 2016 and 2019. The Saudi King and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi were Chief Guests for the Republic Day Parade in 2006 and 2017. The success of Indian diplomacy towards the Gulf region was evident when despite its best efforts Pakistan failed to gather support of key Gulf Statesin its efforts to vilify India after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019.
Neutralizing Pakistan’s anti-India campaigns
There were other high points too in the early nineties. Indian diplomacy worked over time in select Western capitals to neutralize vigorous ISI sponsored campaigns involving millions of dollars and dubious connections to sabotage India’s fight against Pakistan sponsored cross border terrorism and separatism in Punjab and J and K. Pakistani efforts to move a Resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission on J and K in 1994 were blocked due to hectic Indian diplomatic efforts.
(Pankaj Saran is a former Diplomat and former Deputy National security Advisor)