Foreign policy in transition

A review of Arijit Mazumdar’s Indian Foreign Policy in Transition: Relations with South Asia


Indian foreign policy was given renewed vigour by newly appointed Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s invitation to South Asia’s heads of government to his inauguration in May 2014. Modi attempted to breathe fresh life into not just South Asian bilateral relations but also multilateral institutions like SAARC. In light of these developments and the paucity of serious books on Indian foreign policy, Arijit Mazumdar’s Indian Foreign Policy in Transition: Relations with South Asia is a timely addition to available scholarship.

It is often said that the key ingredients required to develop an understanding of international relations are a history book and a map. This book is a well-researched product that immerses itself in the history of the political evolution of South Asia, to understand the forces guiding India’s relations with the countries of the region. However, it takes the idiom too seriously, as it often reads more like a regurgitation of history than an analysis of foreign policy. Mazumdar starts from the proposition that the end of the Cold War and the advance of globalisation have unleashed new forces that have afforded countries the diplomatic and economic space to fundamentally advance South Asian integration and harmony. The book identifies three trends that will have a profound impact in the region: India’s growing economic clout, the transition towards democracy in most South Asian countries, and the increasing presence of the US in South Asia. It then proceeds to analyse the impact of these trends on India’s relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal; with frequent but short references to China. The central thesis of the book is the prosaic liberal prescription: Promotion of democracy and alignment with US interests by India will reduce conflict in the region, unleash private entrepreneurship, and invigorate economies; leading to increased trade and regional integration based on shared values and institutions.

Increasing trade and strengthening economic integration has been a pillar of Indian foreign policy in the post-liberalisation era. There is also consensus that the US and India both desire to strengthen their strategic partnership and overcome differences. However, the book presupposes the existence of common ground and understanding between US and India that belies reality. It is not surprising that the writer based out of the US, paints the US as the benevolent policeman in the subcontinent that has “adopted a balanced approach” which has “served to bring both India and Pakistan to the negotiating table” while pressuring Pakistan to give up the tools of insurgency and convincing India to be more flexible on Kashmir.

While there is vague mention of “Indian concerns” with the US, there is no analysis of exactly what those concerns are – specifically, US military aid to Pakistan, tacit collusion in Pakistan’s nurturing of “good terrorists” and prevarication on pushing Pakistan to crack down on its safe havens for terror. The author suggests that there is lack of “credible evidence of Pakistani officials systematically supporting Taliban and AlQaeda” – although he later contradicts himself by asserting that extremist groups in Pakistan are shielded by the military and intelligence services. Although there are significant Indian concerns about US foreign policy not having learnt from its disastrous track record in the region, Mr Mazumdar lays the onus on India to “support US efforts” in the region as opposed to the converse.

Redeeming sections of the chapter include short but comprehensive analyses of Pakistan’s post-independence political evolution and the civilian-military power play. Mr Mazumdar also cogently dismisses India’s current policy of non-engagement with Pakistan as “self-defeating and unsustainable” by drawing attention to the lack of alternatives, the rallying effect on anti-India forces in Pakistan and the compulsions and politically tenuous position of the civilian government in Pakistan under pressure from both the military and a volatile public. Nonetheless, his argument is limited by the surprising omission of the perspectives of many Indians on frequent terror attacks and LOC violations and infiltrations.

Continuing on a similar note, the chapter on Afghanistan begins with praise for the US for having “stabilised Afghanistan” after several decades of violence. There is barely any discussion on Indian concerns of increased terrorism and infiltration into Kashmir post ISAF drawdown or of the sensitive Afghan requests that India supply basic military equipment to Afghanistan. The book glosses over the US hypocrisy in engaging the Taliban in peace talks despite clearly drawn “red lines” and making Taliban’s acceptance of the Constitution a precondition to talks; Meanwhile, India is encouraged to shelve its concerns about involving the Taliban in peace talks, become “transparent about its involvement” and respond in a way that “acknowledges US concerns”.

At one stage the author asserts that both India and Pakistan equally “desire peace in Afghanistan” while separately claiming that “cooperation with Afghanistan to stabilize the security situation is ultimately deemed to be serving India’s interests more than Pakistan”. Outdated data on the TAPI Project and Indian aid numbers to Afghanistan are errors which should not have been overlooked either.

India-Bangladesh relations are scrutinised in the well-explained backdrop of complex domestic political battles in Bangladesh. However, despite a detailed historical overview, the Bangladesh Liberation Movement is glossed over in the interests of being politically correct: “The liberation struggle was led by the Awami League, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.” To the unaware reader – there is no genocide that the Pakistani Army is culpable for. The water sharing problem is given adequate space but the chapter is limited by a lack of analysis of illegal migration into India (a hot button issue in India today), BCIM corridor (though transit rights are discussed generically), or of India’ playing out the Gujral doctrine in reverse – refusing to live up to its promises despite Sheikh Hasina’s unilateral measures to crack down on insurgents in Bangladesh and resolve other bilateral issues.

Mr Mazumdar encourages India to play “good cop – bad cop” with the US to pressure Sri Lanka into implementing the 13th Amendment, reducing President Rajapakse’s authoritarian grip of power and relaxing curbs on civil society. He dismisses the fear of consequent greater Chinese influence on Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean on the naive grounds that Sri Lanka “would not want to jeopardise its good ties with India and the US.”

There is not much to argue with most of the policy prescriptions that the book makes – greater economic integration with South Asia, increased trade to bridge “trust deficits”, support for democratic transitions, increased collaboration with the US on shared interests, engaging with “anti-India” actors like the BNP, Taliban etc. But there is a lack of analysis in these prescriptions. The author urges India to be more proactive in making “promotion of democracy” a central element of its foreign policy but without offering any analysis of its ramifications – What does the promotion of democracy mean in the context of the Shahbag Protests in Bangladesh? What does it imply in the context of gridlocked Constituent Assembly debates in Nepal? What does it mean in the context of electoral fraud in Afghanistan or Maldives? To what extent is intervention permissible in each of these cases? What would intervention involve? None of these are addressed.

Unfortunately, for a book on India and South Asia, there is a surprising lack of insight on multilateral institutions like SAARC and BIMSTEC, which have been identified by the current government as areas of renewed engagement. Perhaps the only exception is one line on SAARC being a tool for smaller countries “to check India’s regional aspirations”, which is a point repeated multiple times.

The book serves as an excellent primer on the political history and evolution of the various South Asian states. The various domestic factors that influence decision-making, the trade relationship between India and its neighbours, the manner in which the elites have marginalised indigenous communities in some countries leading to recurrent conflict and upheaval – have been lucidly explained. However, the book disappoints as a piece of serious scholarship on foreign policy, with inadequate analysis, a bias towards American interests, and omission of several key issue areas.