No single institution or personality can be attributed with having exclusive rights or influence in the arena of foreign policy in India. There are several contributing actors, who collectively build up India’s foreign policy consensus and at different times, one or the other actors play a dominant role.
The various institutions of foreign policy making in India can be broadly categorized into two sectors i.e., formal and informal sector.
- Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)
- National Security Council (NSC)
- Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)
- States (para-diplomacy)
- Pressure groups
- Think tanks
- Private Sector
Formal Institutions of Foreign Policy Making
1. Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)
MEA is the pivotal player in India’s foreign relations. In the ‘allocation of business rules’ of GOI, MEA has been empowered with the task of planning, formulating and managing India’s external relations with other nations to protect and promote national interests in the global stage.
However, MEA is not the sole agent charged with making India’s foreign policy. The ministry acts like the foreign policy secretariat, which receives numerous policy inputs from various sources. It analyses and channelizes the different options to the political leadership, i.e., the Cabinet headed by the PM, and then implements decisions taken at this apex level.
These inputs come from information gathering primarily by Indian diplomatic missions (embassies, high commissions and permanent representative offices) abroad. Other sources include relevant ministries, departments and agencies in India, think tanks and research centres like the IDSA and IWCA, from trade and industry associations like CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM, from academic institutions, and from individual subject specialists.
In line with issues that have become important in recent times, MEA has established specialized divisions catering to counter terrorism, cyber diplomacy, e-governance, etc,. There is also an Economic Diplomacy Division, and a division looking after Multilateral Economic Relations (MER). There is also a division to deal with nuclear proliferation, disarmament and related issues, including India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and related bodies.
Then there is External Publicity Division of MEA, which is the chief source of dissemination of information on India’s foreign policy objectives and measures, a key player in the Indian diplomacy initiatives.
The MEA is also the primary department responsible for all passport, visa and consular issues. Passport and visa policies are also piloted by the MEA. The ministry also discharges citizen-centric services like issue of passports and provision of consular services to all Indian nationals in India and those living abroad. It is the principal source of visas for foreign nationals desiring to visit India for various purposes like tourism, business, studies, medical services, etc. The OCI cards are issued mainly by diplomatic missions abroad to eligible persons of Indian origin. And in effect all Diaspora issues, including the safety and security of Indian nationals residing abroad, are under the policy making purview of MEA.
2. National Security Council (NSC)
NSC is an apex body of the Government of India, which advices the Government on matters of India’s National Security, Foreign Policy and Defence. Although the final decisions rest with the PM and the Cabinet, in recent years, the National Security Council has emerged as an important stakeholder in the shaping of India’s foreign and security policies.
Chaired by the PM, the NSC consists of the Ministers of External Affairs, Defence, Home and Finance, Chief of Defence Staff, the National Security Advisor (NSA), Deputy NSAs and Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog. NSA is the Secretary to the National Security Council.
The NSC is a three-tier organization consisting of the Strategic Planning Group, the National Security Advisory Board and the Joint Intelligence Committee.
Strategic Planning Group (SPG) – This is the top most decision making body at the bureaucratic level, The SPG is responsible for formulating and implementing India’s strategic policies. Headed by the Cabinet Secretary, the SPG is also assigned to make long term strategies for India’s military doctrine. Its members include secretaries of all important ministries and departments. This Group meets periodically and continuously observes national and international security environment and takes necessary steps to neutralize possible threats.
National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) – the Board consists of members from outside the government, and advises it on matters related to national security and development. It does long term analysis and provides perspectives on issues of national security. Its membership includes eminent professionals, academics, scientists, administrative experts and retired bureaucrats. It is important to note that NSAB played an instrumental role in formulation of draft Nuclear Policy of 1999.
Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) – this committee receives intelligence inputs from the IB, R&AW, and the Directorates of Military, Naval and Air Intelligence. It is the highest intelligence assessment organization, tasked with inter-agency coordination, collection and analysis of intelligence data. Headed by a Chairman (usually an Additional Secretary from the Cabinet Secretariat), the JIC has representatives from MEA, MoD, MHA, IB, R&AW, and some other departments. At times, the JIC also directs the relevant intelligence agencies to conduct certain intelligence gathering tasks, based on the input or demand from the Government. The JIC is an important and effective advisory body to the PM and Cabinet in decision making on matters related to foreign affairs and defence.
National Security Council was established by the former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998. The council hosts members from various ministries and has filled the gap for the need for a deliberative body to enable a more strategic decision-making process. The utility of the institution can be said to be as
- A forum to receive various department and experts views, including academics and media.
- It assists the Prime Minister in decision making
- The council also create a bridge between the Civil & Military Strategic Planning.
- To aid National Command authorities with intelligence and advice
However, it is also suggested that National Security Council must have a legislative backing as in the case of USA, which will ensure accountability check arbitrary independence.
With institutionalization of strategic thinking, National Security Council has contributed to a more strategic and futuristic policy making, ending the knee jerk reactions. With two antagonistic neighbours, growing external terrorism threat, and a plethora of internal problems like left-wing extremism, radicalization and economic offences, the role of National Security Advisor & National Security Council will be significant in times to come.
3. Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)
The PMO, consisting of senior level bureaucrats provides secretarial assistance and advice to the PM and functions as the centre of all the policy making in India. It coordinates various central agencies like the Cabinet, Cabinet Committees, Council of Ministers and other stakeholders to sort out interdepartmental hurdles in domestic and foreign policy execution. During PM Nehru’s time, since he was both PM and EAM, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (as PMO was known then), became the centre of foreign policy decision making.
This trend has continued with each PMO assuming the central role in all policy, including foreign policy decision making, often bypassing the Cabinet, Cabinet Committees and Council of Ministers. The current PMO consists of the Principal Secretary to PM, the National Security Advisor (NSA), an and several other officers at various levels.
The Prime Minister, almost without exception, has been the central figure in foreign policy decision making since Independence. All important matters on foreign policy and security need PM’s approval before implementation. The NSA is an important and influencing factor in the advice reaching the PM.
The successful foreign policy formulation and execution depends on the degree of coordination between the PMO and MEA. PM’s approval is crucial in appointment of Indian Ambassadors and High Commissioners abroad, though the formal letter of appointment is issued by the President in his capacity as Head of State. In other words, on all major foreign policy issues, the buck stops at the door of the Prime Minister.
4. Cabinet / Cabinet Committees
The Cabinet being the top most decision making body of the government, determines the course of India’s external relations by giving necessary directions. Cabinet Ministers are the most trusted colleagues of the Prime Minister and assist and advise him or her on major foreign policy issues, including during times of crisis. Cabinet decides on measures to strengthen India’s external security in consultation with MHA, MoD and MEA. Regarding foreign trade and investment issues, the prime consultants are the Ministries of Commerce and Industry, Finance and External Affairs.
The main function of the relevant cabinet committee(CC) is to examine the various activities of the ministry and to give policy directives to the respective departments. Though none of the current cabinet committees (like the CC on Security or CC on Economic Affairs) deal exclusively with foreign affairs, the issues dealt by such CCs, directly impact India’s foreign policy and practices. EAM, Mr. S Jaishankar is a member of two cabinet committees i.e. CC on Economic Affairs, CC on Security.
Indian Parliament has the power to legislate on foreign affairs, one of the subjects in the Union List. This authority includes legislation or amendment of any law for the successful implementation of international treaties, agreements and conventions. The executives are accountable to Parliament, which can seek information and clarification on policies and issues.
Theoretically, by exercising budgetary control and passing necessary resolutions, Parliament can force the government as per its will. However, the government of the day normally enjoys the support of the majority of members of Parliament, and such a situation normally does not occur, unless the government has lost the confidence of the House.
Further, the government can enter the treaties without the need for a vote in the Parliament, and a war could be declared without its formal authorization.
Thus, there is no legal mechanism by which the government is required to seek the approval of Parliament in pursuit of foreign policy.
Among its important oversight functions, Parliament has a Standing Committee on External Affairs and a Standing Committee on Defence, which grill the officials on issues pertaining to foreign relations and external security. Parliament may also constitute ad hoc committees to look into specific issues. Since the parliament is the forum for discussion and debate at the highest level, it plays significant role in awarding the legitimacy to foreign policy. Nehru had little hesitation in acknowledging that external affairs will follow internal affairs.
Indo-Pak Negotiations: After the war of 1962, there was pressure on the government to enter into negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir issue, in exchange for western arms and military assistance. However, due to strong opposition in parliament, any concessions remained out of question. Opposition member, Vajpayee even warned US & UK against interfering in Kashmir issue.
Enclave Exchange with Bangladesh: The legislature check on foreign policy was also exercised in exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh. The agreement merely reflected formalizing lines and boundaries accepted by the Radcliff Award. However, since the agreement would alter the national boundaries, a constitutional amendment, in accordance with Article 368 was necessary. The passing of bill demanded a 2/3rd majority in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The Constitution Amendment bill, initially introduced in 2013, was ultimately passed in 2015. This case highlights the enhanced role of Parliament on certain issues like those involving national boundaries.
Civil Nuclear Deal: The role of parliament also becomes important under coalition or minority governments. This almost happened in 2008 when four Left Front parties threatened to withdraw their support from the coalition government on issue of civil nuclear agreement with the USA.
Later, the opposition’s views also played a key role in the Nuclear Liabilities Bill in pushing the government to include clauses in the bill (section 17(b) and 46). This ensured that legal action could be taken against suppliers in the event of an action caused by malfunctioning equipment. This event highlights the importance of parliamentary oversight and the role of Standing Committees in foreign policy.
6. States (Para Diplomacy)
Paradiplomacy refers to the diplomacy that non-central governments undertake. In simple words, when sub-national governments such as states, provinces, or even cities conduct international affairs to further their interests, it is known as Paradiplomacy. The increasing usage of terms like ‘town twinning’ or ‘sister cities’, etc. displays its growing trend. In India, the process has accelerated, especially since 2014 when PM Modi assumed power.
From a scholarly perspective, Paradiplomacy is a recent phenomenon. The terms substate diplomacy, decentralized cooperation, people-to-people diplomacy, and intermestic affairs are also used synonymously. Its study began as a subset of the study of federalism in countries like Australia and Canada.
Since Paradiplomacy involves greater autonomy of the substate governments, federal countries naturally take a lead in it. For example, Canada and Australia have taken huge strides in this direction. However, this is also not to suggest that it is alien to quasi-federal or non-democratic countries. The impressive FDI performance of China owes its success to Paradiplomacy, which combines central coordination with municipal diplomacy.
Canadian scholar, Panayotis Soldatos, while describing the essence of Paradiplomacy, says that it “is a result of a crisis at the level of the nation-states’ systemic process and foreign-policy performance.” Thus, according to him, Paradiplomacy is an attempt to remedy the crisis. He holds that “decentralization could enhance unity and efficiency in external relations” because “actor segregation does not become policy segregation and a subnational Paradiplomacy helps to rationalize the whole foreign policy process.”
Paradiplomacy serves various purposes on the ground that make it desirable. Usually, regional governments depend on the Union’s resources for their functions. But any government has limited resources. Thus, through substate diplomacy, a regional government can attract FDI. Also, for a diverse country like India, Paradiplomacy offers regional governments alternatives to develop a growth model that caters to its local needs. Thus, scholars often say that Paradiplomacy leads to the ‘globalisation of local issues.’
The major forces behind the rising trend of Paradiplomacy are the twin phenomena of globalisation and liberalization. With the growth of an integrated world economy, even state governments are impacted by global phenomena. Thus, to further their interests, state governments too engage in foreign diplomacy.
If we look around the world, several countries are adopting and benefitting from economic Paradiplomacy. For example, the city of Sao Paolo in Brazil is the richest city in Latin America, and the municipal Paradiplomacy helped it witness a meteoric rise.
In India, Paradiplomacy came into play post-1967, when regional coalition governments led to an increase in states’ autonomy. However, it remained lacklustre. It gained impetus post-liberalisation in the 1990s. For example, in 1992, when the power sector was first opened to private foreign investors, the government of Maharashtra entered into an agreement with Texas electric giant, Enron, and General Electric to finance its Dabhol Project. The project operationalized only after the then Central government actively supported it.
At present, several states are increasingly willing to utilise this opportunity to pursue economic reforms and outreach. Vibrant Gujrat, Magnetic Maharashtra, Invest Odisha and similar efforts by UP, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Haryana, North-East etc. are indicative of this. Border states are incidental in promoting trade with neighbouring countries. Punjab, for example, has built additional trade routes at the Wagah border. Tripura has excelled in organising border haats.
The foreign diplomacy of substates, however, is not limited to economy. They are also important in subjects such as security, environment and resource management.
Paradiplomacy also brings with it some difficulties. We have seen incidents when the Union and state governments differ on a policy, jeopardising the nation’s interests. For instance, Mamta Bannerjee, the CM of West Bengal, stopped then PM Dr. Manmohan Singh from signing the Teesta Water Agreement with Bangladesh. Similarly, Tamil Nadu had insisted that India should not support the US resolution against Sri Lanka in the UNHRC. Also, Kerala had insisted on punishing the Italian marines who killed two fishermen, souring relations between India and the EU (Enrica-Lexie Case).
Such incidents, however, do not negate the benefits offered by paradiplomacy and can be resolved by establishing formal institutions and framing clear guidelines. Currently, paradiplomacy is still in a nascent phase in India. The MEA has risen to the occasion and set up State Divisions. However, more institutional setup is required to fully harness Paradiplomacy in India. The centre should act as an observer and a monitor to ensure that the foreign policy goals of the states and the Union are in sync, especially in non-economic matters.
Paradiplomacy holds immense potential, especially for a diverse country like India. With clear policies and institutional infrastructure, it has the potential to accelerate India’s growth.
Informal Actors in Policy Making
The established media in India particularly, newspapers, journals and television are taking an increasingly greater interest in foreign affairs issues than in the past. This is a healthy development as the Government is forced to factor in the views from the ground before deciding on issues that may affect the lives of its citizens. In the recent past, Indian media as a whole has emerged as a significant business opportunity and attracted large investments. This has helped the media to become more autonomous players in the foreign policy debates in the country.
The media hold the capacity to draw and sustain attention to a particular policy issue. It can also alter the discourse around a policy by framing or defining the issue in a particular way. The media’s impact on foreign policy can also be understood with the larger role that it plays in providing an understanding of foreign countries and their foreign policies to the domestic audience. While it is also true that Indian media continue to view developments abroad through the eyes of foreign news agencies since Indian news agencies have just a handful of correspondents abroad.
There can be little doubt that the media play a significant role in informing, shaping or skewing the foreign policy debate. But it remains questionable as the whether it can actually lead a government to adopt, modify, or abandon a chosen foreign policy discourse. Since people often depend to a greater degree on the media to report and explain foreign policy developments, media practitioners and policymakers have a close relationship which is a two-way street. This is exercised by the government exerting a certain degree of pressure to guide (and manipulate) information concerning policy and the National interest; and the media, through its reportage and commentary, nudging policy in certain directions.
2. Pressure Groups and NGOs
Voices of non-political groups, associations and organizations are important sources of influence in shaping government policies, including foreign policy and security issues. Some of these groups, like friendship associations, are formally established and registered with the concerned authorities and have greater access to the policymakers, while others are informal but wield influence primarily through making their views known through various media, including through writings in influential journals and magazines, and lately through social media.
NGOs are growing in stature not only for their work among the masses in India but also for significantly influencing policy decisions, some of which have a bearing on India’s external relations. NGOs dealing with environment, human rights and migration issues are very active in India. The importance of garnering domestic support for foreign policy is recognized and underscored by the fact that the Ministry of External Affairs Public Diplomacy Division and External Publicity Decision goes into the management of what has been referred to as India’s ‘media diplomacy’, ‘soundbite diplomacy’, ‘instant diplomacy’ & ‘real-time diplomacy’.
According to UN International Migration Report 2019, India was the leading country of origin of international migrants, with 17.5 million persons living abroad. Migrants from Mexico constituted the second largest “diaspora” (11.8 million), followed by China (10.7 million).
Soon after independence, the Prime Minister adopted the policy of distancing itself from Indian diaspora, as it was worried that the support would be seen as interference by host country. However, since early 1990s, India has launched various initiatives to engage with this diaspora. Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Bharatiya Prawasi Sanman Award, corporate internships for diaspora youth, Know India and Study India programmes, scholarships for diaspora youth, etc.
The diaspora has sent regular remittances ($89 bn in 2021-22), made investments, lobbied for India on crucial issues, promoted Indian culture and, in general, created a positive image of India and Indians through their intelligence, hard work and entrepreneurial attributes, adding to India’s brand value. India has actively championed the cause of the Indian diaspora/NRIs whenever they face problems or discrimination and conducted emergency evacuations from war zones/conflict areas. The overseas Indians/diaspora, enthused by India’s efforts to engage with them, have in turn, responded to our overtures to participate in India’s development initiatives, including in the Make in India and Digital India programmes, as also promoted the cause of India with their host governments.
Prime Minister (PM) Modi has taken this policy further and made diaspora diplomacy a central part of his foreign policy and on his visits abroad, PM has made it a point to address the diaspora community in each country, outlining India’s needs and priorities and urging the diaspora to invest in India.
India is bound by its diaspora through invisible threads and ‘diaspora diplomacy’ is an intrinsic part of India’s foreign policy.
4. Think Tanks
Along with mainstream media, there are significant groups outside the government that exercise a significant level of influence in foreign affairs. These include the dons various universities, research centres and think tanks.
The significant think tanks include, the School of International Studies at JNU, MEA supported Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and the Defence Ministry supported Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). Other players are the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), the RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries), ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations), the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Observer Research Foundation (ORF), and Vivekananda Foundation, all based in Delhi. Then there are international relations studies departments in universities and colleges, and a few private higher educational institutes, also contribute inputs towards India’s foreign policy calculus.
5. Private Sector
Big business, particularly the house of the Tatas and Birlas played a benevolent hand in the shaping of the newly independent nation and its national and global outlook. In the post reform period, business organizations, like FICCI, CII, ASSOCHAM, NASSCOM, etc., could be regarded as akin to US lobbyists groups, which engage with the government to create a favourable business environment to suit the interests of their members.
Foreign trade and investment as a component of India’s GDP has been on the rise since the 1990s. Obviously much of this interaction seeks to influence government to adopt policies that favour Indian exporters, importers, recipients of FDI and Indian investments abroad. Government in turn uses the expertise and resources available with such business groups to conduct its economic diplomacy.
It is now customary for senior leaders, including Presidents, Vice Presidents, PMs and relevant ministers to have business delegations accompany them on their official visits abroad. Similarly, during visits of foreign leaders to India, who are also seeking to advance their ties with Indian businesses, the concerned country embassy and MEA or MoC seek the participation of such business groups to organize and conduct the business related events. Such activities not only enhances Indian businesses to influence policy at home but also with governments abroad. A case in point is the favourable environment created for Indian IT companies in the US through sustained lobbying there by NASSCOM.
Previous Year Questions
- How do the constituent states influence the foreign policy making process in India ? [2021/15m/200w/7b]
- Describe the structure and function of the National Security Council of India. What role does it play in the formulation of Indian foreign policy? [2020/10m/150w/5a]
- Examine the role of ‘parliamentary diplomacy’ in India’s foreign policy. [2019/10m/150w/5a]
- Discuss the role of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in promoting India’s soft power abroad. [2018/20m/250w/7a]
- How does the parliament determine and influence the making of India’s foreign policy? [2015/10m/150w/5e]
- “Federal units are critical in making India’s foreign policy’. Examine this statement with the role of West Bengal vis-á-vis Bangladesh. [2014/15m/200w/6b]
- The Ministry of External Affairs is losing its importance in the making of India’s foreign policy with the parallel rise of PMO. Explain. [2014/20m/250w/8a]
- Assess the scope and importance of setting up the Public Diplomacy Division in the Ministry of External Affairs in strengthening India’s Foreign Policy. [2012/20m/250w/6c]
- Explain the role of the Parliament in the shaping of 123 Agreement between India and the US on Civil-nuclear Cooperation. [2011/20m/5]
- Explain the impact of coalition politics on India’s Foreign Policy since the late 1990s. [2011/30m/8]