A Foreign Policy For The People

This essay was written originally in July 2018 as a submission to Indian Council of World Affair’s essay competition. The original title of the essay was “Is India’s foreign policy an instrument of our development?”

“The bottom line for our nation is and will remain, addressing the challenge of development,” Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said at the launch of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal in 2006. Too often, foreign policy is reduced to what Jawaharlal Nehru called the “empty struggles on a chess board”. When a layperson thinks about diplomacy, he may be thinking of just another sport in which a country tries outplaying its opponents by building up its military and economic strength. Diplomats are stereotyped as lotus-eaters living in the glamorous capitals of the world. Then, why does the Prime Minister talk about “growth that is equitable and efficient” and “our quest for development” at the inauguration of a journal by the Association of Indian Diplomats?

Our foreign policy is often misunderstood. In a BBC television show “Hardtalk”, former foreign minister of India K. Natwar Singh was asked about an offer by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to make India a ‘great power’. He replied:

“We are not in the game of becoming a great power. Our job is to eradicate poverty.”

India’s Foreign Policy is an instrument of our development and our diplomats are the foot-soldiers in the long drawn battle, not against any nation, but against poverty and underdevelopment.


How can a country’s Foreign Policy facilitate its development? It can directly affect development by effective economic diplomacy. Higher economic growth results in more revenue with the State which can then be redistributed through various development schemes. Economic diplomacy includes active Trade promotion and Investment Policy. The country should be able to negotiate various Economic, Financial, Commercial and Environmental agreements to its advantage for creating suitable conditions for its development. All of this directly affects our economic growth as well as its nature.

While the above factors in the economic sphere affects our development directly, the country’s power projection and co-operation with other countries in the political sphere can indirectly contribute to its development by creating an environment for its peaceful development. War-torn countries do not figure high on development indices. We shall discuss how successful our foreign policy has been on the above parameters. I’ve used the terms ‘foreign policy’ and ‘development’ in their most expansive spirit. Foreign Policy, for the purpose of this essay, is not restricted to what Ministry of External affairs does but it encompasses multiple ways in which India collaborates with the world & leverages external resources as opposed to the domestic ones for its development. While economic growth is a good proxy for development, it doesn’t capture all of its aspects. Development, as I understand, includes economic growth, quality education, clean environment, quality healthcare, and everything that allows people to achieve their human potential.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with John F. Kennedy

When India awakened to ‘life and freedom’, it was suspicious of foreign trade. The East India Company which started as a trading enterprise had ended up as the master of the Indian subcontinent. India was, therefore, once bitten twice shy. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, in what C. Raja Mohan labels as India’s ‘first republic’, India’s economic diplomacy was largely about promoting exports, ensuring the imports of critical commodities and bringing in bilateral and multilateral development aid.

How could the newly Independent India secure its autonomy in the Cold War when the dominant rhetoric was ‘you are either with us or against us’? The Pulitzer Prize winning American Novelist Cormac McCarthy writes:

“Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favour of the weak.”

This inference is helpful in understanding India’s non-alignment policy especially in Nehru’s India. While Nehru is often portrayed as an idealist for whom foreign policy was an end in itself, non-alignment helped India get development aid from both US as well as USSR. If India didn’t get too close to any of the superpowers, it could be closer to both of them. In the words of an eminent Polish economist Michal Kalecki, India was the “clever calf that suckles from two cows”. External assistance helped India relieve the pressure on the internal resources and keep balance of payment in check at the time of rising investments. US helped India with community development programs in 1950s and it sent technical assistant trainers to Indian villages. India got food aid through US’s PL 480 program. Later, India got technical assistance in agriculture which kindled the Green revolution in India helping us become a food surplus nation from one that was literally living from “ship to mouth”.

The USSR, the other pole of the Cold War, helped India develop steel mills in Bokaro and Bhilai, the Ranchi Heavy Engineering Plant, Bharat Heavy Electricals and Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals. While the intentions behind the aid can be questioned and they were questioned at the time, India was able to get external assistance without giving up its strategic autonomy.

India-Russia Friendship Propaganda Poster

Around the time India achieved its independence, two institutions IMF and the World Bank came into existence. It was largely to meet India’s expanding needs that the World Bank established International Development Association (IDA) which provides soft loans for the poorer countries at concessional rates. India had been the largest borrower from IDA and its graduation from IDA in 2014 is a testament to India’s success in tackling its developmental problems. India collaborates with World Bank on achieving various developmental outcomes. Take for example, the present government’s Rs. 6000 crore scheme called Atal Bhujal Yojana to recharge groundwater. It employs community participation to ensure sustained groundwater management. Similarly, the World Bank’s assistance in Skills India mission, Maharashtra’s Climate resilient agriculture project, Bihar’s Transformative development project, Swachh Bharat Mission, Tejaswini project for young and adolescent girls or North East’s Power project shows that India’s partnership with the World Bank is truly cognizant of various dimensions of development. It is also beneficial to various parts of India especially the poorer states.


When we ask the question “Is India’s foreign policy an instrument of ‘our’ development?”, we ought to restrict the meaning of the word “our” within our national boundaries as foreign policy is a tool to enhance our “national interest” and not the international interest. But India’s leadership of the Third World helped secure the interests of many defenceless nations too. This holds particularly true for India’s activism at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). India was a founder member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor of the WTO. India’s posture at GATT reflected its concerns for the industrialisation efforts of the newly independent nations. It echoed India’s domestic philosophy as it tried to protect its infant industries which were not competitive enough to survive the international competition. The substance of the argument can be disputed but India was successful in adhering to the agenda set domestically. If India experienced what is pejoratively called ‘the Hindu rate of growth’, foreign policy can hardly be blamed for it. Moreover, the dominant wisdom in development economics at the time affirmed the utility of India’s economic introvertedness. The omission of developmental concerns from the proposed charter of the stillborn International Trade Organisation (ITO) in 1945 had left India and other developing countries thoroughly exasperated. When the US pressed for making the principle of ‘reciprocity’ a foundational principle of GATT, India led the developing world by arguing that their limited domestic market did not offer a level playing field. While the developed world had attained its prosperity after years of high tariffs and regulatory devices, the developing world was asked to open its market as it was just beginning its long walk to development. This conflict will reappear at the WTO. Let’s look at two cases where multilateral trade agreements can practically decide if a person goes to sleep at night without a full stomach and if he can afford the medicine to cure his disease.

In India, agriculture is heavily dependent on rainfall. This gives rise to fluctuation in production and subsequent fluctuation in agricultural prices. To protect the poor consumers and farmers, the Indian government procures agricultural products at Minimum Support Price (MSP) from the farmers. This ensures that the farmer gets remunerative price for his produce when there is a glut in production. When prices rise too high, this stock can be used to stabilise the prices, thus shielding the poor Indian from the wrath of exorbitant food prices which still forms a large part of his expenditure. Under WTO, the government cannot provide support of more than 10% of the production cost for an agricultural product. But India managed to secure a “peace clause” on public stockholding at the Bali Ministerial Conference in 2013 enabling India to pursue its stockpiling and thus safeguarding its food security. The deal now applies indefinitely until a permanent solution to the problem of public stockholding is agreed on.

If food is essential for us to live, affordable medicines are equally critical. WTO’s TRIPS agreement compelled India to align its Intellectual Property Regime with the western system. The big pharmaceutical companies, often called the Big Pharma, have misused the patent regime to accrue outrageously high profits. Indian companies have been able to develop similar drugs in the fraction of those prices. So, when a poor person in the developing world is able to afford the medicine for his cardiac disease or diabetes, it is probably a generic medicine produced by an Indian company that saves him.

Image Source: The Economist

Indian IPR regime puts public health before intellectual property rights. India voiced the concerns of the world’s poor at the WTO so that a government can issue compulsory license for any drug for the sake of public health. A patented triple combination therapy medicine for HIV/AIDS can cost about $10,000 per person per year. The Indian company Cipla can achieve that feet in just $200. India’s advocacy at the WTO hasn’t just helped India but also other poorer countries which India can provide with low cost medicines. The above two cases show how diplomacy can affect our lives in ways we never imagined.

The obscene model of development followed by the West since industrial revolution has put our existence on earth in jeopardy. Climate Change is a result of the accumulated Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. One can call Climate change a particularly “racist” phenomenon in that while the Global North is largely to blame for it, it will affect the Global south the most which until recently had contributed almost nothing to carbon emission as compared to the West.

Image Source: Climate Etc.

India’s rationale for the demand to not be constrained by any obligations was put quite poetically by Indira Gandhi at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in 1972 when she said:

We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of the large numbers of our people. Are not poverty and the need the greatest polluters?

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, India articulated its developmental needs and it was instrumental in modifying the term “Common Responsibilities” to “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR)” which has been the bedrock of subsequent Climate negotiations. As Indian economy grew, it took greater responsibility of mitigation by making voluntary targets of reducing its emission intensity by 20-25 percent till 2030 compared to 2005 levels. In the lexicon of Navroz K. Dubash, India has moved from being a ‘Growth first stonewaller’, to a ‘Progressive realist’ under the UPA with a dynamic Environmental Minister like Jairam Ramesh and now to ‘Progressive Internationalist’ under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Modi has made it clear at several occasions that he will be the first to completely switch to renewable if the world helps him with financial support and technology. India’s activism doesn’t mean that its foreign policy is getting disconnected with the concerns of development, it implies that it is striving for a cleaner model of development as a clean environment is itself an essential dimension of development.


At times, economics can help solve the puzzles of politics. India’s north-east, often called the ‘troubled periphery’ has been mired in insurgencies and violent sub-nationalism and suffered widespread poverty and underdevelopment. That is about to change, thanks to India’s Look East policy. In 1991, Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced the policy and put India’s North East at the center of it. With India’s relations with ASEAN and East Asian countries at an all time high, the ‘Look East’ Policy has graduated to ‘Act East’ policy.

The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport (KMTT) Project is poised to connect the North East to ASEAN. Greater economic integration of the North-East with the global economy will certainly prove to be a game changer in the government’s efforts towards its development. Another similarly troubled region since independence has been Kashmir. India has been willing for peaceful talks on Kashmir on the condition that Pakistan first stops harbouring terrorists in its territory. Greater Economic integration can increase the costs of such asymmetrical warfare for Pakistan but it has even refused to grant the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status to India. There has been little success on the ‘Kashmir’ problem but we ought to be optimistic about the power of diplomacy to pull South Asia from the clutches of narrow historical rivalry and consequently from poverty and underdevelopment.

As India grows, its high share of traditional fuels like dung cake and fuel woods use in India will reduce. This will bring with it health and environmental benefits. We can clearly see the change that schemes like Ujjwala have brought in the lives of women who previously used fuels that affected their health. India will have to accelerate its efforts to secure resources from countries across the world. To ease energy deficit in South Asia, TAPI gas pipeline is under-construction that will help India utilize Turkmenistan’s gas reserves. As India’s energy needs grows considerably in next few decades, India has to create similar opportunities elsewhere.

Lastly, not every Indian lives in India. Among the Indian diaspora, Indian labours in Gulf countries are the most impoverished. The unskilled and the low skilled workers endure working conditions that often violate the worker’s rights. Indian Government has cooperated with the Gulf countries on this issue. Its importance has been continuously flagged as a priority for India and it has been emphasised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visits to the Gulf .

Probationers of Indian Foreign Service in the year 2015 | Image Source: PIB

World Poverty Clock gives a real time poverty. On their website, an animation shows people running away from a huge number coloured in Red that counts the poor people in the world. As they run away, the number decreases. The nationality of people coming out of poverty is displayed on the screen. Almost every two out of three such persons is an Indian. It is just a simulation but it does give us a practical sense of how India is fighting poverty every second. Deep K. Datta-Ray, the author of ‘The Making of Indian Diplomacy’, in his attempt to understand the indigenous roots of Indian Diplomacy says:

Indian leaders have repeatedly stated that they are not interested in the goal that the West presumes is India’s i.e. to become a great power. This is assumed by the West to be India’s goal because the West seeks this. Instead, Indian leaders constantly reiterate that the point of their diplomacy is to change the context of Indian.

The contribution of Indian Diplomacy in poverty eradication is a well kept secret. Every time I watch the World Poverty Clock, I imagine the animated people to be running away from a kidnapper, some ‘Mogambo’ figure, who has imprisoned them in a land far away. I am sure a diplomat will receive them at the airport.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

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