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India’s foreign policy cannot be tethered to dogmas: S Jaishankar

Express News Service

As India hopes to assert itself on the world stage, its foreign policy cannot be tethered to dogmas and needs to be agile in a fast-changing global order, according to external affairs minister S Jaishankar. Delivering the 4th Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture Thursday on the topic, "Beyond the Delhi Dogma: Indian Foreign Policy in a Changing World", Jaishankar said: "We are now at the cusp of change. With more confidence, the pursuit of seemingly divergent goals and the straddling of contradictions are being attempted. Taking risks is inherent to the realisation of ambitions."

He said that "a nation that has the aspiration to become a leading power someday cannot continue with unsettled borders, an unintegrated region and under-exploited opportunities" and "above all, it cannot be dogmatic in approaching a visibly changing global order".

WATCH | The Fourth Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture

Stressing that many of the long-held beliefs no longer hold true, Jaishankar said that in a changing world "we need to think, talk and engage accordingly" and added that "falling back on the past is unlikely to help with the future".

The foreign minister said the "very structure of the international order is undergoing a profound transformation," and cited India's foreign policy cannot be tethered to dogmas: Minister-diplomat Jaishankar "American nationalism, the rise of China, the saga of Brexit and the rebalancing of the global economy" as the "more dramatic examples of change".

He said what defined power and determines national standing is also no longer the same - "technology, connectivity and trade are at the heart of new contestations".

"The global commons is also more in disputation as multilaterism weakens," Jaishankar said. "The real obstacle to the rise of India is not anymore the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi," he said.

"Evidence strongly supports the view that India advanced its interests effectively when it made hard-headed assessments of contemporary geopolitics. And even more so when it did not hesitate to break with its past. The 1971 Bangladesh war, the 1992 economic and political repositioning, the 1998 nuclear tests or the 2005 India-US nuclear deal are instructive examples. Indeed, it is only through a series of disruptions that India was able to bring about decisive shifts in its favour," he said.

"A misreading of geopolitics and economics upto 1991 stands in contrast to the reformist policies thereafter. Two decades of nuclear indecision ended dramatically with the tests of 1998. The lack of response to 26/11 is so different from the Uri and Balakot operations. Whether it is events or trends, they all bear scrutiny for the lessons they hold," he said.

Jaishankar said "the fact remains that even after seven decades of independence, many of our borders remain unsettled" and that in the economic sphere, "we may look good when benchmarked against our own past" but "it seems a little different when compared to China or South East Asia".

India needs "greater realism in policy", Jaishankar said. The "early misreading of Pakistan's intentions can perhaps be explained away by lack of experience", but "the reluctance to attach overriding priority to securing borders even a decade later is much more difficult to justify", he said. He said India had strongly "built up an image of a reluctant power," but it "ended up influenced by our own narrative".

This, he said, was the reason that India "rarely prepared for security situations with the sense of mission that many of our competitors displayed". Discomfort with hard power was reflected in lack of adequate consultation with the military, most notably during the 1962 conflict, said Jaishankar, and compared it to the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff "half-a-century later shows a very different mindset".

Regarding Pakistan, he said the fact that "it has taken us so long to link talks with Pakistan to cessation of terrorism speaks for itself".

Discussing the important of economy and diplomacy, he said that "economy drives diplomacy; not the other way around".

Talking about India not signing RCEP recently, Jaishankar said that China "poses a special trade challenge even without an FTA". The recent debate about the RCEP offers lessons in foreign policy as much as in the trade domain.

He explained: "What we saw in Bangkok was a clear-eyed calculation of the gains and costs of entering a new arrangement. We negotiated till the very end, as indeed we should. Then, knowing what was on offer, we took a call. And it was that no agreement at this time was better than a bad agreement. It is also important to recognize what the RCEP decision is not. It is not about stepping back from the Act East policy, which in any case is deeply rooted in distant and contemporary history. Our cooperation spans so many domains that this one decision does not really undermine the basics. Even in trade, India already has FTAs with 12 out of the 15 RCEP partners. Nor is there really a connection with our Indo-Pacific approach, as that goes well beyond the RCEP membership. There can be a legitimate debate on the merits of joining RCEP or any other FTA for that matter. Just don't confuse it for grand strategy."

Earlier, welcoming the Foreign Minister, Raj Kamal Jha, Chief Editor, The Indian Express, said that a government with a majority in the Parliament may not need allies for domestic politics, but it still needs to perform the "coalition dharma" for international relations.

Describing Jaishankar as a "scholar-diplomat", Jha said the Foreign Minister blended hard-nosed diplomacy with a soft touch. Jha said Jaishankar's skills lie in navigating the "contemporary fog" and ascertaining how much of that fog is a blind spot.

The appointment of Jaishankar in June was the first instance of a Foreign Secretary being given the Foreign Minister's job.

The Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture was instituted in 2016 by The Express Group to mark 25 years of the passing of its founder. The first three RNG Memorial Lectures were delivered by Raghuram Rajan, then RBI governor; Pranab Mukherjee, then President of India; and Justice Ranjan Gogoi, currently the Chief Justice of India, respectively.