Principles versus praxis

India’s Foreign Policy

By Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JIMMC)

The epic ‘Mahabharata’, famously filmed by B.R. Chopra, teaches us plenty of principles of statecraft in several episodes. In one such tellingmoment, in the last battle between Duryodhana and Bhimasena fought with maces, Lord Krishna gives a powerful message to his own brother Balarama. It so happened that Bhimsena hit Duryodhana below the belt on latter’s thigh, which is not permissible in a mace-fight. He did it on the hints given by Lord Krishna which themselves were allegorical. As Duryodhana lay on the ground deeply wounded, breathing his last, Balarama, who was witnessing the fight, took out his mace to hit Bhimsena to death. Balarama was the greatest mace fighter of the time and was teacher to both. Lord Krishna jumped in between Balarama and Bhimsena and lovingly admonished the former, his elder brother.
Notably, what Lord Krishna said, is of immense importance to our foreign policy which maintains a delicate balance between principles and praxis, often times, tilting in favour of praxis as many countries do. My argument has been, in view of many a determinant of our foreign policy being not in place, the principle and praxis in our foreign policy have to be merged. Let us understand how Lord Krishna said to Balarama, “in a battle between dharma (principle/good) and adharma (evil) the only place to go is to the battlefield (ranabhumi); you had gone away on pilgrimage (tirtha yatra) having refused to take sides, you cannot come at the last stage and seek to influence the outcome of the battle, because you are not aware of what has happened in the epic battle. Duryodhana has been the epitome of adharma (Lord Krishna cited several of those acts of adharma). So why extend the courtesy of dharma to the evil-incarnate, Duryodhana”.
If we scan the history of making and practice of India’s foreign policy, it is based on dharma (principles) like non-intervention in others’ territories, no-war but peace-seeking, non-alignment, promotion of virtues of democracy, tolerance, accommodation, equity between nations and so on. Our adherence to dharma has earned us goodwill of the international community. Indian democracy and pluralism are cited as examples of best practices by other countries. But whenever we have failed or been reluctant to support other countries on the basis of dharma, we have become weaker in our own and others’ perception. For instance, our positions on Tibet, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Ukraine do not enhance our image as an aspiring world power.
The former US President Barack Obama, a ‘good friend of India’addressing the Indian Parliament on 8 November 2010 spoke glowingly about India – our history, culture, politics, civilisation and so on. But on standing up for democracy and human rights which we dearly uphold, Obama was critical, mildly though. He said, “when peaceful democratic movements are suppressed – as they have been in Burma, for example – then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent…… Faced with such cross-violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community – especially leaders like the United States and India – to condemn it.And if I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues”.
Some of us have maintained that, it is in the national interest of India to stand up for democracy and against violation of human rights anywhere in the world, particularly in our neighbourhood. Our position on Tibet has been fraught with risks for India’s security. Tibet was a buffer created ironically by the British colonial regime between India and China. Nehru’s giving away Tibet without reciprocal obligations from Beijing and India accepting it as a part of China has brought the PLA on to our borders. It is another humanitarian matter that we have sheltered Dalai Lama to the chagrin of Beijing.
When Afghanistan, an independent and sovereign country, was invaded by the Soviet Union on 24 December 1979, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was ambivalent, not even supporting a UN resolution which called for withdrawal of ‘foreign forces’ from the soil of Afghanistan. That is why, for our noncommittal approach, we got sidelined in the fight against Taliban or in takeover by Taliban recently. Similar has been the story on Iraq which was invaded by Anglo-US combine without a UN mandate. Currently, as the war is raging in Ukraine, India seems non-involved. Is that a right stand?
Apparently, New Delhi has sympathy for Moscow’s position in the current war in Ukraine because of our longhistory of friendship and dependence on Russia. We have also managed to buy some oil from Russia whereas Europe, dependent largely on Russian oil and gas, has cut off supply. In that sense, New Delhi perhaps made a smart move! In keeping with the practice of non-alignment, the efficacy of which we have questioned repeatedly, New Delhi is friendly with both United States-led NATO bloc as well as Sino-Russian alliance. If this stance is maintainable is another question that needs to be investigated.
On India’s attitude towards China, Prime Minister Modi attended the 14th virtual BRICS summit hosted by China in June 23 and 24. Narendra Modi and Xi-Jinping may meet in person at the SCO summit in Uzbekistan in September, first time both coming face to face after the April 2020 stand-off at the Line of Actual Control. But do such meetings yield any tangible result, solutions to ongoing border disputes etc.
Curiously, with China you can talk and talk, but Beijing will do what it wants to, being indifferent to persons (country heads) and principles of international law. The 14th virtual BRICS summit in June was hosted and hijacked by China. Beijing went by a blue print it had prepared for the new world order. BRICS, as has been conceived and constructed, has inherent contradictions. Participation in BRICS does not help the partners constituting it.
Remember, the bloodshed at Galwan as Beijing sought unilaterally to alter the LAC. India’s only reason for joining BRICS is perhaps to preclude any drastic change in the Indo-Pacific. Yet both China and Russia do not even favour the change of name from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. Let us also not forget that neither Soviet Union nor Russia has supported India against China since 1962, in view of the ‘brother and the friend’ syndrome. Russia is set to have facilitated some discussion between India and China after February 2022. To be sure, Russia is legally (treaty-bound) obliged to take the Chinese side in any future showdown between India and China.
If India could manage to persuade Russia to negotiate with Ukraine and if Russia could get China to disengage from areas occupied since 2020, it would make some sense for India’s foreign policy. Until Russia stops the war and China withdraws from Indian territory in Ladakh, all that was said in the joint communiqué released by BRICS sounds hollow. The words like responsive, transparent, democratic etc. coming from Russia and China sound incredible as both countries have violated each one of them.
On economic front, not only investment to India has diluted, even the Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) are exiting India. The war in Ukraine is one of the reasons for depleting investment. This bringsus back to the question raised in the beginning that, “dharma (principles), and vyabaharikta (praxis)” have to be combined to stamp India’s footprint in international community. Some thoughts for South Block to chew into. – INFA