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Indian Foreign Policy – Continuity & Change

continuity and change in ifp

The foreign policy of any country, unlike domestic policy, is usually considered to be staid and stable not subject to revolutionary change. However, foreign policy is both static and dynamic and Indian foreign policy is no exception to it.

Statism (continuity) in foreign policy: ‘Statism’ in foreign policy denotes the maintenance of the status quo, e,g., sending Indian troops for peace-keeping operations in conflict zones, only under United Nations resolution and command. Static foreign policy elements reduce risks.

Dynamics (change) in foreign policy: Changing dynamics in foreign policy mean the ability to change or mould policy according to changes in the country’s external environment or a revolutionary change in the country’s domestic political scenario. A concrete example of such dynamism would be the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration ceremony of President Ibrahim Mohammad Solih of Maldives in November 2018. This came in as a reversal of the earlier policy of avoiding visits at the level of President or PM to Maldives during the regime of former President Abdulla Yameen, who was known to be inimical to India’s interests. A dynamic foreign policy shows a greater appetite for risk-taking.

Foreign policy of any country, including India, contains both static and dynamic features.

Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy

We can divide the global political and security order and India’s Foreign Policy response to the same in three phases.

  1. 1947-1991
  2. 1991-2008
  3. 2008-Present

1) 1947-1991

From 1947 to 1991, the world was characterised by a bipolar world order. The League of Nations had withered away, and the United Nations was born, moulded by the victorious World War II allies namely, the US, USSR, UK and France. Global economic and financial power was usurped by the Western developed countries primarily the US and its European allies who developed the Bretton-Woods arrangement with the World Bank and IMF duo controlling the global financial system and the GATT (later replaced by WTO) shaping global trade.

In this environment, India’s response was to adopt the policy of non-alignment. Being non-aligned meant not being identified with either superpower while aiming to get political, security and economic support from both camps. The purpose behind this stance was so that the young nation could overcome its severe political, social and economic stress and degradation, after two centuries of colonial rule. This was the staid and stable phase of India’s foreign policy, perhaps best suited for the times.

2) 1991-2008

In the second phase from 1991 to 2008, two major events in 1991 kick-started the process of change. The former Soviet Union collapsed and splintered into many independent countries, Russia being the largest among them, and successor to the USSR in the UN. The second was the foreign currency crisis faced by India, the likes of which we had never experienced before. We witnessed a changing world order with only one country remaining as the major political, economic and military power, viz., the USA. Multiple other lesser poles of global power started sprouting from this period onwards in the EU, Russia, China, dynamic Asia including Japan and India and in South America, particularly Brazil.

India responded to these catatonic changes by weaning itself away from non-alignment to a multipolar alignment, adjusted its previous, often adversarial relations, with the remaining major power, the USA, incorporated globalization and paid greater attention to its immediate neighbourhood.

3) 2008-Present

The third period is from 2008 to the present times. In 2008, the US and the global banking and financial systems were severely jolted, starting with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. This led to a severe economic meltdown in the advanced economies of the world, and even among most of the erstwhile champion emerging economies like South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. In this period, the United States’ economic and military superiority is being chipped away, with most of the slack taken up by China, which is also becoming a more attractive political model for some developing countries. The rise of multiple poles in the EU, ASEAN, Russia, Japan, India, BRICS, IBSA, SCO, etc., has been much faster than in the previous period. The fulcrum of global power is gradually, but surely shifting from the West to the East, particularly to Asia.

Indian foreign policy has responded vigorously to these changes with non-alignment dropped altogether. Today, Indian diplomacy is primarily focused on the USA, China, other P-5 member countries, and our neighbourhood. Look East has been expanded to Act East. Africa has loomed into focus and Latin America does not look so distant anymore. Economic diplomacy has taken the pole position in India’s foreign policy above that of political and security issues.

Static Factors in Indian Foreign Policy

  • The relative political stability of the country, particularly as compared to India’s neighbours in South Asia;
  • Socio-religious balance infused by the constitutional choices made by India’s founding fathers in 1950;
  • Reduction and elimination of poverty as a continuous state-led endeavour;
  • Strategic independence sought in foreign policy and practices as highlighted by the fact that despite giving up non-alignment as a policy tool, India has been careful not to be identified with any camp or alliances directed towards a third country or group of countries;
  • The continuity provided by the India Foreign Service (IFS) which mans most of the posts in the Ministry of External Affairs and in all Indian Diplomatic Missions and Special Offices abroad.

Dynamic and Responsive Factors in Indian Foreign Policy

  • India’s geopolitical potential. India is clearly the dominant power in South Asia and the principal player in the Indian Ocean region;
  • India’s military might, which globally is the second largest in terms of manpower deployed and third largest in terms of our annual defence budget – a factor that contributes to flexibility in our diplomatic postures;
  • The demographic dividend currently enjoyed by India is posited on the ambition and drive of India’s millennials who are generally anti status-quo and dynamic;
  • The ‘catch up with China’ pressure on the foreign relations establishment in India ensures innovation at every stage;
  • The unmitigated movement towards digitization is ushering change in the way diplomats communicate with each other and with the public; Public services offered like passports and visas, are now increasingly digitized;
  • The Indian diaspora spread across the globe, estimated to be around 20 million in numbers, the highest in the world, adds to the dynamism injected in India’s overseas relationships and achievements;
  • The size of the growing Indian market is not only good news for home-based entrepreneurs, but also a strong attraction for companies abroad.

Challenges to India’s Foreign Policy

1. Nuclear Weapons

The danger posed by an increasingly weaponized world, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology is a challenge with no immediate remedy. The US-Russia nuclear weapons roll back programme and the Iranian nuclear deal are in disarray. The effort to restrict such weapons and its technology from the hands of irresponsible states and non-state actors is also not going anywhere. The two Indian neighbours already possess nuclear weapons, and this further forces India to maintain its nuclear deterrent.

2. Energy Security

India’s dependence on hydrocarbon sources such as coal and crude oil, continues to be very high. India’s dependence on imports of oil and gas, in the absence of large recoveries at home, has only grown over the years. Such dependence on imports has exposed the Indian economy to the oil price and availability shocks that take place from time to time. Thus, Indian foreign policy has to tread carefully so that our supplies of crude oil from the Middle East and Iran are not upset. The current sourcing of oil from Russia has proved to be particularly tricky with India conscious of its strategic dependence on the US and the need to keep its centuries-old relations with Russia on an even keel. The situation repeats somehow in a similar fashion when it comes to oil imports from Iran and Venezuela.

3. Water

Water, it is said, will be the principal source of conflict in this century. The stressed water situation across the globe is increasing day by day, the problem being more acute in large emerging economies like India with its growing population and ever-increasing demand for water. Foreign policy and diplomacy ensures that India’s legitimate claims are not surrendered when negotiating multilateral or global water sharing agreements. However, the problem remains persistent while dealing with Indian neighbours.

4. Food Security

The steady rise in the global population, finite resources like land and water, and anticipated future decline in food productivity increases, means that we have to be alert to this problem and the global scramble for food that may occur in the future.

5. Terrorism

Terrorism hardly respects international boundaries. Despite the best effort nationally, without international cooperation, it is impossible to stamp out this global menace. Asia remains the most terrorism-active region of the world. In the Indian neighbourhood, while one state is ruled by a terrorist organization (Taliban in Afghanistan), the other state actively promotes cross-border terrorism, while remaining a victim itself (Pakistan).

6. Climate Change

Climate change and environmental degradation is not in any one’s interest. However, the highly industrialized countries which have had centuries of head start in their growth and prosperity path, are the principal cause for today’s situation. Unfortunately, without deft diplomacy, traditional polluters seek to curb the growth path of emerging and developing economies by imposing mitigation measures, which are unfair to those who started industrialization late. India is fully committed to resolving the negative aspects of climate change and environmental degradation, but cannot be forced to accept the same conditions as those imposed on the more developed countries.


In recent times, India has clearly demonstrated its will to play a leading role in the global arena and be counted as ‘pole’ in its own right. Continued stability and prosperity at home and political consensus on broad foreign policy parameters, will help India reach this goal.


Changing dynamics of India’s foreign policy, a lecture by Amb (Retd) Debnath Shaw

Posted in PSIR NOTES

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Hi, I really like the content, we could follow this blind eye while preparing optional?

Bharat singh parmar

4th lagest in annual defence budget after US china Russia

Bharat singh parmar

indian diaspora is the largest in the world not chinese