Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy.
Amit Gupta ·       

Rajiv Sikri’s book on Indian foreign policy is a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of the challenges facing Indian foreign policy.  The author begins by outlining Indian policy towards different regions of the world, and more particularly towards countries with whom India has key interests, and then goes on to discuss where foreign policy efforts should be directed.  The latter part of the book examines India’s energy policy, its economic diplomacy, and the linkage between defense and diplomacy.  

The strongest part of the book is the author’s analysis of India’s relationships with different countries, particularly the constraints that New Delhi faces in pursuing these relationships and in the lost opportunities to develop new paradigms.  The Pakistan chapter brings out that India does not have the ability to engage in coercive diplomacy against Islamabad and argues that one possible future leverage would be to build a river water system in India that could be used to divert water resources from Pakistan.  Similarly, the China chapter demonstrates that New Delhi and Beijing are stuck in an adversarial relationship that cannot be rectified beyond a certain point.  Sikri’s coverage of different countries, regions, and issues makes the book a valuable text book for someone seeking to understand the compulsions of Indian foreign policy.  

The book becomes more problematic when it discusses India’s future options particularly since the old Indian paradigm for viewing international affairs leaves the country on the sidelines in its dealings with a globalized world.  The author, for example, correctly points out why Russia and India have distanced themselves from each other in the aftermath of the Cold War but his suggestions that India recognize that Russia is no longer a defeated power and treat it accordingly can be questioned.  Demographic trends suggest that Russia is in the midst of a population meltdown which will see Russia move from 140 million people in 2010 to about 132 million in 2025 (with a male to female ratio of 85:100 and a population in 2025 of 60 million odd men and 71 million odd women).  This is a country which is in population tailspin and unless it can bring in large numbers of immigrants in the next decade its population profile will be that of an elderly nation—not the ideal workforce or technological engine of the 21st century.  Nor does Russia have the techno-military muscle to influence events beyond its borders in the way it used to (with the exception of oil and gas and both these products are susceptible to market and technological shifts).  Additionally, Russian foreign policy, as the author points out is western centric and this makes strategic collaboration with India difficult—some Russians economists, for example, are unhappy that their country gets lumped in BRIC because the other three nations are developing. 

Similarly, on the energy issue, India has few clear cut alternatives.  Pipelines from Central Asia and Iran are plagued by technical and political difficulties and the lethargy of the Indian government has not allowed for the development of a well thought out and effectively implemented energy policy—unlike the Chinese who continue to lock down global energy sources.  In fact there is a real danger that India will be caught in a medium term situation of relatively high growth rates combined with serious energy deficits.  

The author recommends that the India pursue a more cautious policy towards the United States and not tie itself into the attempts to develop a strategic partnership with Washington.  As he views it, such a move limits India’s foreign policy options, reduces its security alternatives—especially in the nuclear field—and pushes India towards a subservient foreign policy (something that the Indian government, since the times of Jawahar lal Nehru, has sought to avoid).  The author, therefore, argues that this is a tactical relationship rather than a strategic one. 

The problem for Indian foreign policy is that while it continues to be obsessed with India’s neighbors its best opportunities are outside the South Asian region with the countries of the West and Japan.  While Sikri does not make this argument his analysis certainly points in this direction. Unlike the neighboring states and China, there are no intractable and visceral problems with the advanced industrial nations.  Further, these are the countries where India’s advantage of a top-notch human capital can be best utilized.  As the countries of the west age, India, with its demographic advantage, will provide the technocrats and professionals to allow the industrialized nations to retain and grow their scientific-industrial bases and, perhaps, even look after their elderly populations.  Indian companies are seeking to create their brand presence in the west rather than in the nonwestern world where they run into a multitude of problems.  The techno-economic linkage between India and the West does not mean that the New Delhi is closing its options.  The population and spatial limitations that make it difficult for the countries of Eastern Europe to pursue independent policies do not apply to India.  It remains too large, too complex, and too stubborn to become what the author fears it might—a pawn in great power strategy.  What is more likely is that India’s younger population, which is both increasingly globalized and very ambitious, moves it into greater interdependencies with the developed world.  This may, arguably, be the way to pull the non-globalized portion of the Indian population into a more prosperous setting.

While this reviewer may not agree with some of the author’s conclusions the book remains well researched, well written, and persuasively argued.