Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Indian Foreign Policy: Kal, Aaj, aur Kal

  • Ambassador (Retd.) Satish C Mehta

    By: Ambassador (Retd.) Satish C Mehta
    Venue: Venue - School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat
    Date: February 28, 2022

Professor R. S. Dubey, Vice Chancellor of Central University of Gujarat,
Professor Manish, Dean, School of International Studies,
Professor Sanjay Jha
Ms. Eva Loreng
Dr. Saurabh Sharma
Distinguished faculty members of the School of International Studies,
Dear students of the School of International Studies,


It is an honour to speak to you today as part of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrations being organized by School of International Studies of the Central University of Gujarat and Ministry of External Affairs, which I had the privilege of serving for over 3 decades.

75 years is a small speck in our long civilizational history. Yet, in the Westphalian construct of a nation-state this is our only experience. Both domestically, as a functional democracy, and internationally, as a large country and emerging power, this has been a tumultuous period full of challenges, many achievements, some failures, some mistakes, but, above all, profound lessons. The title of the lecture Indian Foreign Policy: kal (the past), aaj (the present) and kal (the future) has two connotations- first, foreign policy is a continuum, and second, if we don’t draw the right and dispassionate lessons from the past, we are not far from repeating the mistakes, both today and in future.

While as scholars of International relations you all know it well, still let me start with something very trite. What is the purpose of foreign policy? As I see, it is to further national interests. As a country content with its borders as defined in its constitution, our foreign policy has, is, and continues to focus on two inter-linked objectives. First, the security of our country and second, the prosperity of our people. Security covers integrity of our borders, safety of our people from cross-border terrorism, energy, water and food security and security from depredations caused by climate change. Promoting prosperity of our people includes access to capital, technology, raw materials, markets, and employment opportunities abroad. These are thus the touchstones on which we’ll have to measure our foreign policy’s successes and failures.

Let me start with a broad brush picture of our achievements. In terms of our reach, respect we command and resonance of our views in the comity of nations, we have done well. We built and burnished our credentials as a peace-loving, friendly, rule-abiding and caring country, ever-willing to help and share. During early decades post-independence, along with our size, this helped us finesse our limited resources or light military muscle to yield considerable influence in shaping the thinking and direction of global politics and, to some extent, economics. Some early examples of it are de-legitimising colonies, creating a political framework through the Non-Aligned movement to give elbow room to a large number of non-European countries to not get trapped in the Cold-War divide, preferential treatment to developing countries in international trade, development assistance and so on. As a people, this has served us well. Indians are accepted around the world and are, perhaps, the most sought after work force.

Success can be intoxicating; failure can be confidence-corroding. But both can be great teachers, if we draw the right conclusions. As time is limited, let me turn to some of our failures. Not to lament, but to learn and avoid making the same mistakes. For this we need to eschew the temptation of justifying sub-optimum decisions of the past on grounds of ‘prevailing circumstances were such, oh there were domestic political compulsions or you won’t understand the external pressures’ and what have you. Perhaps all this is true. But good leadership and good policy is about taking sound decisions. Also, it is is unlikely that these so-called compulsions will not loom large and cast a shadow in the future. So for you as International relations experts and for my tribe of foreign policy advisors, our analysis has to lead to what should have been the right decision, unclouded by the immediate compulsions.

Our independence, secured mainly by a non-violent movement, lulled us into believing that non-violence was a natural law which will always work, that dialogue and negotiations are fail-safe method to resolve all disputes, and that the world will weigh in on the side of the right.

These flawed conclusions got exposed soon after our independence when Pakistan attacked Jammu and Kashmir in 1948. After rolling back the aggression and saving the Kashmir valley, we stopped in our tracks and allowed Pakistan to capture and retain parts of the erstwhile Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir. Instead of reversing it fully through armed action, we went to the UN Security Council in 1948. Of course we got no justice. We overlooked that Cold War had started, the overriding concern of the West was to contain the USSR, Sheikh Abdullah was perceived as communism-leaning, India’s economic policies were influenced by socialism and the Soviet-model, and we were perceived to be pro-USSR. What happened thereafter is known and needs no repetition. Over 7 decades later, the issue remains unresolved and has cost us much blood and money. It’s an albatross around our neck and a perennial pressure point on us. So what are the lessons:

- Don’t allow your territory to be occupied.

- Possession is nine-tenth of the law.

- Serious countries take foreign policy decisions based on their interests and not merely on legality or a moral sense of right and wrong.

- Don’t repose faith on others’ goodwill or fairness. Instead, build convergence of interests.

- Paying a small price today is far better than leaving festering wounds. Let me elaborate on this: We had the means to take over the entire Jammu and Kashmir. If we had done so, we would have a land border with Afghanistan at the Wakhan Corridor, access through it to Central Asia, and there would be no physical connectivity between Pakistan and China. What a heavy continuous price we are paying for a path not travelled then.

Despite the setback in Jammu and Kashmir, we chose to remain innocent to the ways of the world. China, economically and technologically not even comparable to us in the 40s and 50s, saw things very differently. It focused on securing itself before enriching itself. Tibet, thus fell prey to China in the 50s. Even though Mao, who had led an armed revolution successfully, had said more than once that power grew from the barrel of the gun, we didn’t see the lurking danger at our doorstep. We were seeing and assessing others through our tinted glasses and in the belief that they would see the right and wrong as we see it and consider war a futility. This was not to be.

The 1962 China War shattered that illusion. We lost territory, we lost global esteem - after all losers aren’t good examples- and we lost our self-belief. The lessons were clear. Our help to China in its freedom struggle or other support when it was isolated didn’t carry much weight. Past favours don’t outweigh present interests.

As I said, we were influenced more by our immediate experiences of the independence movement. We overlooked timeless lessons of our own civilisation. After all, the sermons of Gita were not given in a hermit’s cottage but on the battlefield of Kurukshetra and it was a clarion call to fight the just war. Or the fact that ours is perhaps the only civilization which, let me say it in Hindi and then translate, hum shaastra aur shastra dono poojte hein. In English it means we worship shaastra that’s scriptures and shastra that’s weapons. Both are mutually reinforcing. Without one, the other is feeble.

Post-China war, with some illusions shattered, greater realism infused our thinking and foreign policy. And there was no respite for us. Famine, economic stress, democratic polity leading to growing expectations of people compounded the challenges on the border and to our security in the 60s going into the 70s. We were able to tide over the famines of the 60s with massive food aid from the US under PL480, launch the Green Revolution for self-sufficiency, and fend off Pakistan’s 1965 attack. These restored some self-belief in the defence forces and strengthened our confidence in our abilities to handle multiple challenges simultaneously. These were reinforced when we repulsed Chinese aggression in Nathu La in 1967, inflicting on them heavy casualties. Boldness and raw courage, saved the day.

And soon we were to be tested again. Pakistan’s genocide in East Pakistan led to massive influx of refugees in India, stretching our resources to the limit. Our actions were well-thought through, we secured political and military cover by signing the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with USSR in August 1971 and we prepared well for the war that ensued. It was clinical and well executed. In the face of US threat to send its 7th Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, we remained defiant. Bangladesh was liberated, 7th Fleet returned, on the western front we lost no ground and Pakistan was punished.

Yet, despite playing a strong hand, we didn’t handle the peace negotiations well. We fell prey to empty promises and meaningless platitudes. Reasons can be conjectured. But one thing was clear: We had to learn to drive a hard bargain to consolidate the gains of war.

Another narrative was working alongside since independence. There was an understanding that technology determines outcomes for nations and can be the differentiator between winners and losers. We put much emphasis and intellectual capacity in pursuit of science, including nuclear energy and space exploration, which attracted some of our finest minds. Force of circumstances, particularly the Chinese nuclear tests in 1964, signing of NPT in 1968 and the developments of 1971 led to steeling of political will and the so-called peaceful nuclear explosion were conducted in 1974. The Space programme too was producing out sized outcomes on small investments. Intriguingly, our scientific capacities were not harnessed for self-sufficiency in arms and armaments. Indian private enterprises were, strangely, not allowed, even though we had no compunction in sourcing from foreign private companies. Public sector fell way too short. In war and in quest for strategic autonomy this was a severe handicap.

Back to China. We were becoming clearer about the continued threat from China. Lest Sikkim became another Tibet, we welcomed Sikkim’s integration into India, deepening defences in the strategic Chumbi valley which abuts the narrow Siliguri Corridor, the jugular vein to India’s north east. Internal destabilisation followed soon- nationwide strikes and efforts to paralyze the government, Khalistani movement, separatist movement in Kashmir, in addition to the turbulence in the north east.

Access to weapons of mass destruction could be a great leveller of power. So the great powers, notwithstanding the Cold War divide, worked in tandem to prevent others from access to WMDs. Unlike nuclear weapons which required large industrial infrastructure, biological and chemical weapons did not. So the latter two were universally prohibited through Biological Weapons Convention in and Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997. And to retain monopoly over nuclear weapons, NPT was crafted and only countries having tested nuclear weapons until 1968 were treated nuclear weapons states. Increasing pressure was brought on India to sign it and threats were held out if we didn’t fall in line. This became more relentless after NPT’s indefinite extension in 1995. Additional pressure was mounted to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. To cut through all this, at least from PM Narasimha Rao onwards, every PM toyed with the idea to do the nuclear tests but backed off, until Prime Minister Vajpayee took the call to cross the rubicon. After some fiery statements, some economic sanctions and much sanctimoniousness, the world fell in line. The India-US nuclear agreement of 2005 led to informal acceptance of our status as a nuclear weapons state. The rest, as they say, is history. Acceptance and acquiescence from the rest followed. This was amongst the most courageous strategic decisions since 1947. We demonstrated that we had the resolve and the courage to walk alone, if necessary. We will not subject our security requirements to the approbation of others. We were signaling our arrival.

Pakistan, smarting after the 1971 debacle, and seeing the power differential growing, used cross-terrorism for asymmetrical war and impose a huge cost on us. Concerned at the risk of nuclear escalation, we were left with only diplomatic tools of protests. This wetted Pakistan’s appetite for greater audacity. Until PM Vajpayee called the bluff during Kargil invasion in 1999. This muscular approach was given a go during UPA I and II. A series of attacks took place, the most dramatic was the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But the lessons of Kargil, forgotten for a decade, were not erased from our memory. In NDA 2 under PM Modi, swift retaliation followed the cross-border terrorist attack in Uri in February 2018 by Surgical strikes and the massacre of CRP personnel in Pulwama in 2019 was settled within two weeks by the audacious air strikes at Balakot. India showed that the game of brinkmanship could be played by it too. While Pakistan denied any culpability for Uri and Pulwama hiding behind its outsourced terror groups, India publicly announced its action of surgical strikes and Balakot air attacks, not just punishing but diminishing Pakistani government. The lesson is very clear, rectitude is rewarded with more attacks, retaliation leads to restraint by the other side.

I have dwelt enough on the security dimension of foreign policy. Let me move to the second rubric of promoting prosperity- the economic dimension. Until the 70s, there were not much opportunities as the socialist economic policies were inward looking and suspicious of both the domestic capital and the foreign. These were strangulating the economy and stifling the innate sense of entrepreneurship, so native to us. Being in Gujarat, who would now better than you all. And so we were living with a sub-par economic performance and lurching from one economic crisis to another. The first steps to reorient the Indian economy started during the short-lived Janata Party Government in the 70s. But the process started in earnest in the late 80s during the Rajiv Gandhi government. This also led to rethink on the foreign policy and gradual warming to the US, which was seeing a potential market and investment destination in India. Collapse of the Soviet Union, emergence of a unipolar world and a severe foreign exchange crisis which led to hypothecation of gold to raise foreign exchange in 1991, forced our hand on not just economic policy but also foreign policy. India opened up its economy to the world during PM Narasimha Rao’s government. This came with its own set of challenges as, often, change brings losers before it throws up winners. So, while some businesses were able to adapt, regroup and prosper, many couldn’t, either due to ineptness or because they didn’t get enough time to adjust. Opening up also saw our entering into some trade agreements, including with ASEAN countries and South Asian countries. The former proved very disadvantageous as we opened many sectors which were not yet ready, and the latter became hostage to Pakistan’s unremitting hostility towards India. Once bitten, twice shy. We became wary of more free trade agreements. And slowly learnt the right lesson. Until we create a level playing field for domestic companies and build strong enterprises, FTAs are injurious. And so, despite much negotiations and criticism, we walked out of RCEP, when our concerns were not addressed. The signal was clear. If our interests were not served we will not hesitate to say no.

Reasons why we were being left out despite tremendous economic growth being witnessed in East Asia were internalized. And this led to many course corrections and new initiatives: connectivity, infrastructure, skill development and education system improvement became focus areas. The first big push came during the Vajpayee government with the Golden Quadrilateral road link and recasting the telecom sector policy unleashing rapid expansion of mobile telephony. An even bigger boost to infrastructure and making Indian economy competitive has come under PM Modi as we have raised the bar significantly on our ambitions. Our innate sense of entrepreneurship is being unleashed. Additionally, knowledge and technology is being leveraged to address many issues, including, reducing transaction time and cost, enhancing transparency, making government services more easily accessible and empowering those left behind. Entrepreneurship and risk taking is now encouraged and celebrated, wealth creators are getting their due. After all ours is a civilisation which worships Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Now both are joining hands. The outcomes are uplifting. From a mere $ 1 billion foreign exchange reserves in 1991 we now have over $ 620 billion in our kitty, enough to tide over any immediate challenges. We created over 40 unicorns in 2021 despite COVID concerns. 2022 promises to be even better. FDI, FPI, and FII are pouring in huge investments. And exports are poised to exceed a record $ 400 billion. Our domestic agenda of promoting prosperity is being well served by good foreign relations. Major global economic powers are hugely invested in India’s success. We are rushing towards a $ 5 trillion economy and mount 10 trillion too is not far. In your life time you will see what existed for centuries until the 17th century- India and China being the largest global economies.

Some long standing problems that sucked up much diplomatic, military and economic resources are being sorted out. As a result of deft diplomacy and our growing political heft, removal of Article 370 and the changed status of Jammu and Kashmir has been treated as a non issue in chanceries around the world and Pakistan’s chest beating has been ignored. Even the Gulf countries, on which much of Pakistani sustenance depended, are turning their back on Pakistan. They are increasing heavily their equities with India- from security cooperation to economy. It’s a turnaround of historic proportions with far reaching consequences for us and the region. Today, a hapless Pakistan has but just one saviour - China, putting it in an unenviable situation. This is a major diplomatic triumph of India.

In the first 6 decades since independence, our talks with Pakistan on Kashmir seem to have hovered around some settlement around the Line of Control. Giving our territory in the hope of gaining peace may sound good but is flawed. It is likely to leave us with neither land nor peace. May only create appetite for more territory grab as we don’t have territorial dispute with Pakistan alone. Recent years indicate some rethink.

Lessons learnt over the 7 decades such as not allow any more land grab, pay price today to save a larger future price, be resolute in defending our interests, build convergences with other powers for sustainability but depend on none, be relentless in negotiations and agree only if our interests are served, strategic autonomy comes from strong and diversified domestic manufacturing capabilities and aatmanirbharta in research and development have been well internalized and have become the corner stones of our economic and diplomatic approaches.

New policies are being crafted, resources are being allocated and a series of actions are being taken to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. The new drone policy, the clarion call to make India aatmanirbhar, increasing allocations for domestic defence procurement, PLI scheme for a number of important sectors of the economy, massive incentives for semiconductor and chip manufacturing, increasing encouragement to private sector in defence production are just some examples.

The new robustness and resoluteness is visible whether it was the challenge in Doklam in 2017, Uri in 2018, Pulwama in 2019 or East Ladakh in 2020. India’s message is clear: it’s no longer a soft state. Taking on it will carry a price.

But even while we act tough, the value and significance of soft power is not lost on us. Intelligent use of soft power can have outsized outcomes. In fact in recent years, we have redoubled our efforts. The organization of International Day of Yoga from 2015 onwards, promoting our thought, values, beliefs, sharing generously our limited resources with other countries through humanitarian assistance, education and training, development projects and, in the recent past giving COVID vaccines

generously when others refused to do so, are but some examples. I had mentioned about outsized outcomes: here is one example. Due to the image of Indians as decent, diligent, intelligent and non interfering or polarising people, Indians are globally preferred as immigrants. It serves our domestic agenda of promoting employment and prosperity. Result: India receives over $ 70 billion a year in remittances alone. And this is growing.

Some immediate challenges such as the stand-off with China, or pinpricks by Pakistan will continue. There could be risks of a two front conflict. We will have to steel ourselves to deal with such scenarios and be deft in our diplomacy to prevent such eventualities. Delicate handling of relations with Russia and energising of Quad are strategies in this direction.

This is also a period when an emerging great power is challenging the established power. Such periods are difficult to handle and miscalculations are possible. We will have to be forever vigilant but not sit on the sidelines. After all we are next in line for great power status.

But make no mistake. We will be challenged ever so often from outside and from within. Let me do a flash back and share my perceptions on it. PM Indira Gandhi led a strong government- 1971 war victory, Pokhran 1 tests of 1974, integration of Sikkim in 1975. Yet there was no respite and she had to face serious strikes and disruptions in 1974 and 1975. PM Vajpayee, despite successful nuclear tests in 1998, lost majority and his government in 1999. And now we see multitude of manufactured agitations in India. There was and is a concerted effort to weaken strong nationalist governments. This will remain a perennial challenge.

But I am confident that in the new India being built by your generation on the judicious blend of the powers of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Shaastra and Shastra our future is secure. After all we are the inheritors of Chanakya, the master of statecraft.

Thank you for your patience.

Jai Hind.