Nobody talks of a “Singh doctrine”, concluded The Economist (London) last month in a hasty review of Indian foreign policy, even though several learned essays have already been published on the subject. To be fair, though, given the missteps of the second UPA government, it is understandable that many are unable to decode a “doctrine” shaping India’s wayward policy in recent years.
The flowering of a new way of looking at the world during UPA1 was nipped in the bud by UPA2. Perhaps to set the record straight and make sure that all is not forgotten, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh utilised the opportunity provided this week by an annual interaction with Indian plenipotentiaries from around the world to explicitly define his foreign policy doctrine. Over these past nine years, the prime minister claimed, he had sought to “engineer a fundamental reset” in India’s foreign policy, based on “national priorities” and India’s “role and destiny in world affairs”.
Not shying away from being explicit, the prime minister enunciated one of the cardinal principles of realism in foreign policy when he asserted that there is an “intrinsic link between our foreign policy and the economic aspirations of our people”. Therefore, he added for good measure, “the foreign policy we pursue must reflect our national priorities and concerns and be in concert with our capabilities”.
Five principles define the Singh Doctrine, so to speak. First, India’s relations with both major powers and her Asian neighbours are shaped by her “developmental priorities”, and so the “single most important objective of Indian foreign policy has to be to create a global environment conducive to the well-being” of the Indian people. Second, greater integration with the world economy is beneficial to India and to the realisation of the “creative potential” of the Indian people. Third, India needs “stable, long-term and mutually beneficial relations with all major powers”, and is willing to work with the “international community to create a global economic and security environment beneficial to all nations.”
Focusing on India’s “neighbourhood”, Singh said his fourth principle would be the building of stronger regional institutions to ensure greater regional cooperation and connectivity in “the Indian subcontinent” — South Asia-watchers, please note. Fifth and finally, underlying these “interests” are “values” represented by “India’s experiment of pursuing economic development within the framework of a plural, secular and liberal democracy”. These values have a global appeal and relevance, so they ought to be held up as a symbol of what India seeks to represent in world affairs and as a member of the global community. Many moons ago, Singh had pulled out the ancient Indian concept of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — the whole world is one family — to capture this “idea of India”.
All this amounts to a radical redefinition of Indian foreign policy. These ideas capture the essence of almost every single foreign policy initiative that Singh has taken since 2004, including with the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan. They also apply to initiatives with other Asian neighbours, including most recently, Japan, Africa and the Indian Ocean region. If commentators on Indian foreign policy have not been able to discern a doctrine defining Singh’s various initiatives, it is because in UPA2 there has been a deliberate attempt to obfuscate his policies and worldview, and to resurrect outdated theories of the Cold War era.
To be sure, Singh is partly to blame for this confusion in thinking and articulation of foreign policy. He allowed the foreign ministry and the foreign policy establishment to become a debating society in which everyone was holding forth on grand principles and no one was devoting time or attention to getting things done the way he wanted. This was in stark contrast to the political leadership he provided to foreign policy in UPA1. As finance minister in 1991-95, Singh dismissed criticism of his policy from within his own ministry by famously declaring that the government was not a “debating society”. Those who disagreed with his policies, he then suggested, were free to leave. He had work to do. He took a similar view when some of his colleagues, officials and diplomats tried to contest his foreign policy initiatives in UPA1. During UPA2, however, such policy leadership has been episodic.
Finally, when things really went out of control and he found his legacy being threatened by his own people, the prime minister had to personally intervene to reverse the consequent waywardness. He had to step in to salvage relations with the US and take charge to restore a balance in relations with China after the Depsang incursion. He had to intervene to impart momentum to yet another key relationship, that with Japan, as he had done earlier with the ASEAN. There have been times that he has shied away from taking political charge, as was the case with Bangladesh and now threatens to be the case with Sri Lanka. At these junctures, his political colleagues and diplomatic aides did not always succeed in delivering. Hence, while he has had some success in mending relations with major powers, the less said about the neighbourhood, the better.
While UPA2’s handling of immediate foreign policy challenges can be criticised, it would be difficult to challenge the long-term relevance of the principles that define the Manmohan Singh Doctrine. A doctrine is for the long run. It need not always help in dealing with short-term problems and there is no substitute for clever diplomatic intervention. Criticism about what the doctrine ignores is either based on an excessive focus on the here and now or nostalgia for the then and gone.
Theorists of international relations will classify Singh’s worldview as realism tinged with idealism. While it prioritises India’s immediate developmental needs and aspirations, it recognises the universal relevance of the values that define the Indian republic — pluralism, secularism and liberalism — in this new era of peoples’ power. Its full flowering, however, requires bolder political leadership.
The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi