Is Indian Diplomacy Too Quiet?

Recently, one of India’s senior-most foreign policy makers was speculating that the leaking of the US National Security Agency’s PRISM metadata surveillance system (and its sister program, Boundless Informant) may not have made Washington completely unhappy.

“The US and India have different approaches to foreign policy. The US wants you to know what they can do. They believe in getting the message out, because they are so successful in controlling the message. We are completely different,” he said. The desi diplomat is the Quiet Indian. The Indian foreign ministry prefers to keep things, even diplomatic successes or specific Indian foreign policy capacities, as discreet as possible.

Is that a mistake? First, it is necessary to ask why New Delhi prefers to be so quiet. Here are some theories.

One, foreign policy has traditionally been an elite policy area with minimal public debate (or interest). India’s small strategic community could largely do as it wanted without concern over external views. Advertising foreign policy actions would only attract interference.

Two, India has little inclination to broadcast its accomplishments overseas. Nehruvian foreign policy was limited to moralistic speeches, and India’s strategic horizon was confined to its immediate neighborhood. India was already resented enough by its smaller neighbors; boasting about Indian power would only have made life more difficult.

Three, for a country with limited resources and capabilities, quiet diplomacy makes more sense than loud militarism. For much of India’s independent existence, hard power was not seen as an instrument of Indian foreign policy because of widespread recognition of the country’s poverty.

Four, India has a strong intellectual streak of pacifism and multilateralism, and a general commitment to “do no evil,” tracing back to Mahatma Gandhi but also to an older convention of nonviolence. This does not include muscle flexing and the like.

But is this sustainable in the contemporary age? My view is that it isn’t. India can no longer keep its foreign policy message in the hands of the elite. This is less about the developed world’s interests than the growing overlap between Indian domestic politics and external policies. Diplomacy was once an elite construct. Today, as one Indian ambassador said, the consensus on even neighborhood policy that once existed in India is breaking up as the concerns of Tamil and Bengalis and so on began to trump this informal understanding. Getting out a foreign policy message is an essential part of securing domestic support for that policy. And this is what New Delhi has so far been painfully unaware of or unwilling to recognize.

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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