WASHINGTON: Managing India’s foreign policy in the current global environment is “like a high trapeze act with multiple balls in the air,” India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said on Thursday, identifying reconciling of ties with the US, China, Russia, and Japan amid fast-paced developments in the Indo-Pacific and Ukraine among the challenges New Delhi is facing.
In a candid assessment of India’s handling of foreign relations, Jaishankar offered a blunt critique of New Delhi’s neuroses vis-a-vis US and China. For nearly five decades India looked upon the United States with suspicion and its overall foreign policy assessment of the US was of deep caution. But post-2000, New Delhi has forged a different relationship with America, he said, largely crediting Prime Minister Modi‘s lack of “ideological baggage” for the more recent changes.
“For almost 50 years, for various reasons… I’m not saying we were at fault, or the US was at fault…. but the fact was we regarded the US with suspicion, with a lot of wariness. There was a very substantive relationship, but the overall foreign policy assessment of the US was of deep caution if not of deep suspicion,” Jaishankar explained.
But things began to change in 2000 after President Clinton visited India, and even though there were some residual doubts even during the nuclear agreement talks between 2005-2008, because of “innate, historical, deeply-rooted, possibly validated, suspicion…we decided this is a gift horse, maybe we really might need to look at in the mouth.”
Although the nuclear deal was struck during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
‘s term, Jaishankar credited Modi for the recent impetus in the ties. “It has taken us a lot of effort to overcome the earlier assumptions… one of the big differences which PM Modi has made…he has not carried ideological baggage. He’s not a person who is rooted in a certain world view which makes you fundamentally distant from the US,” Jaishankar, who is a Rajya Sabha member elected from Gujarat, said.
The external affairs minister is leading the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly
session this year in the absence of Prime Minister Modi.
There was also remarkable candor from the minister in his assessment of China’s rise vis-a-vis India and the world, including an acknowledgement that Beijing having pulled its weight “a little more than India,” was an “understatement.”
Explaining that there were “three big things which went wrong for India — Partition, the delay in exercising the nuclear option, and delay in economic reforms,” Jaishankar conceded that China not only had a head start, but had a better strategy that fueled its growth.
“Our model of globalisation and embracing the world was deeply flawed. We did not build our domestic supply chain, we did not support our MSMEs, we thought the world economy would be fair to us (which it wasn’t),” he said in remarks that implicitly suggested the economic reforms during 1991-2014 period were half-baked.
There was also a note of regret in the observation by the minister, who has been closely associated with the policy aspect of India’s nuclearisation in more recent years, that China exercised its nuclear option early in 1964, whereas India did a half-hearted move in 1974 and then had to do it all over again in 1998.
“1974 was tough enough but when you stretched it to 1998 you created a big burden on yourself and also allowed Pakistan to catch up in that period,” he noted.