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The last two decades have seen growing assertiveness of regional parties in India’s national politics with the result that electoral politics has affected the creation of a robust foreign policy. This paper explores the linkages between foreign policy and domestic politics and its implications for Indian foreign policy. There are strong domestic influences on foreign policymaking in India’s relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and in the foreign policy dimensions of Kashmir. Above all, there exists an ‘elite discord’: there are significant differences of opinion between the national and regional political parties on issues of foreign policy. There is also a lack of synchronisation of foreign policy goals and domestic interests, particularly regional interests. The politics of regional appeasement and communitarian appeasement have become a norm in Indian politics, which has hurt the robustness of the country’s foreign policy.

INDIA “REMAINS AN ISLAND OF DEMOCRATIC VALUES AND POLITICAL stability in a region convulsed by religious fanaticism, illiberal governments, state sponsors of terrorism, and economic stasis.”[1] Despite macro-economic stability, a durable democratic polity and a robust defense force, India is losing ground and traditional allies have now become rather ‘cold’ towards this nation. In spite of change of political regimes, there has been some degree of continuity in foreign policy goals, but lack of clarity in the ‘means’ as well as strong policy goals have led to a rather cloudy future wherein the stakes are high, but preparations seem rather low.

Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics: A Theoretical Understanding

An important dimension of the study of foreign policy is the impact of domestic politics.[2] Kenneth Waltz raises a pertinent question, “Why states similarly placed in a system behave in different ways?” Essentially, differences in the foreign policy goals and means adopted by states can be attributed to several factors. Waltz emphasises the importance of the “third image” or systemic forces in shaping foreign policies, and argues, “The influence to be assigned to the internal structure of states in attempting to solve the war-peace equation cannot be determined until the significance of the international environment has been reconsidered.”[3] But factors shaping foreign policies of a nation state are far more complex, especially because domestic and leadership factors can never be underestimated. How decision makers interpret and respond to their domestic and international environments is then subject to a number of factors: psychological, societal, ideational, political, institutional, and material.[4] The scholar James N. Rosenau has drawn attention to “linkage politics”: the relationship and impact of domestic politics on foreign policy of a state.[5] Foreign policy is driven by both internal and external factors; effectively, “innenpolitik theories stress the influence of domestic factors on foreign policy,” and “offensive realism” (sometimes called “aggressive realism”) essentially reverses innenpolitik logic and argues that systemic factors are always dominant.[6] Scholars like Zakaria and Synder refer to “Primat der Aussenpolitik” which essentially means the “primacy of foreign policy,” claiming that international relations strongly affect a state’s domestic arrangement.[7] However, there is no unanimity in this regard because foreign policies are far too complex to be understood from only one perspective.

Scholars have brought to the attention of the larger IR community the hypothesis that domestic politics and decision-making process does influence foreign policy issues.[8] Robert Putnam provides a deeper insight into the ways domestic politics determines foreign policy outcomes, wherein “parties, social classes, interest groups (both economic and non-economic), legislators, and even public opinion and elections, not simply executive officials and institutional arrangements,”[9] are all varyingly important determinants of a nation’s foreign policy. A country’s foreign policy has to be stable and uniform irrespective of change of political regime, and national interest has to triumph over party politics. According to Fearon, domestic politics shapes foreign policy issues in two ways: “(a) by causing states to pursue suboptimal foreign policies, or (b) when differences in states’ political institutions, cultures, economic structures, or leadership goals unrelated to relative power are causally relevant to explaining different foreign policy choices.”[10] Party positions and their strength in their respective national assemblies matter. Souva argues, “When one conceives of a state as a unitary and rational actor primarily concerned about its own security, the foreign policy implication is that politics stops at the water’s edge, meaning that when it comes to security issues, politicians put partisanship aside.”[11] However, in a democratic country, domestic issues are often debated along party lines, and electoral politics at times undermines the importance of foreign policy and national interest.

Parliamentary governments need to have strong leaders as well as stable coalitions. However, there are still several factors which “can be from outside the government as well as from within the government”[12] that may influence the government and have long-term impact on a country’s foreign policy. Under minority and coalition governments, bipartisan consensus on foreign policy has been difficult to obtain. Political opposition and regime fragmentation also impact change as “more dramatic the shift in orientation, the greater will be the resistance.”[13] As a result, foreign policymaking within coalition governments, especially in a parliamentary democracy, is a bargaining process at “two domestic political arenas,” implying that “each decision maker must negotiate not only with opposing actors within the decision unit but also with factional leaders in his or her own constituency. Coalition decision units are, thus, constrained in what they can do.”[14] According to Helen Milner, “uncertainty at the domestic level has unanticipated consequences”[15] and “as divisions in government grow, international agreement becomes less likely, and where it does occur the terms of the agreement will be more likely to reflect the interests of the legislature.”[16]

Analysis of the foreign policy of developing countries, especially that of India, which is multilayered in different ways, is complicated for it involves “two level games,” i.e. domestic causes and international effects (“second image”), or of international causes and domestic effects (“second image reversed”).[17] Going by the present trend, the “second image” (explained below) seems more predominant in analysing foreign policy in India. The presence of a fragmented polity and a weak political culture further impedes the growth of a robust foreign policy.

Kenneth Waltz has formulated three levels of analysis or the three ‘images’ of international relations to explain the motivation of state action in issues of foreign policy.[18] The first image focuses on human nature wherein the focus is on leaders and their motivations which play an important role in determining state behaviour.

The second image focuses on the domestic structures and their impact on foreign policy. Here, the behavior of any democratic state is expected to be very different from an authoritarian state because the former types of states are often based on principles of separation of powers and regularity of elections. As such, democratic norms make a democratic state more peaceful in nature; it is further reflected through the democratic peace theory wherein democracies do not go to war against other democracies. The realists give importance to the third image, where the focus is on ‘structural’ or systemic conditions, with ‘anarchy’ rather than ‘hierarchy’ shaping state behaviour.

Foreign Policy in India: Legacy and Continuity

The Nehruvian imprint on Indian foreign policy has been overwhelming to say the least. According to Taufiq Nizami, “Nehru became the formulator and interpreter of Indian outlook on foreign affairs.”[19] The tenure of Jawaharlal Nehru as the prime minister was marked by goals such as “resistance to imperio-racist powers” and the “need to liberate the Afro-Asian countries.”[20] The one party-dominant system helped bring about a stable polity and promoted a respectable foreign policy through the principles of Panchsheel, non-alignment and pan-Asian unity. Writing in 1964, Power points out that Nehru’s ideas and power had no real competitor, attributing his preponderance to five factors:[21]

his pre-eminent leadership in domestic politics; his full use of formal and informal authority; his dual role as prime minister and foreign minister; his function as a bridge from the past; and his skill in discussing international relations in terms of widely valued notions, for example, nonviolence. Nehru’s eminence towers over his Congress associates, the Indian diplomatic organization, the Cabinet, and the nation’s major interest groups.[22]

On becoming the prime minister in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri soon had to deal with the India-Pakistan War the following year. Though victorious, his rule abruptly came to an end with his untimely demise in Tashkent in 1966. During his tenure as prime minister, Indira Gandhi served as the union minister for information and broadcasting, and after the 1967 elections, she became the prime minister, emerging a dominant figure in domestic politics. Under her governance, India continued playing an important role on the world stage and among the non-aligned nations, as regional issues and concerns figured prominently in foreign policy.[23] Importantly, the Congress lost control of six state governments that year. The emergence of non-Congress ruled states meant that the federal structure was going to face new strains of electoral politics. Since the Congress Party controlled the parliament, she received overwhelming support in the conduct of foreign policy, especially in the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in 1971, the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, and the merger of Sikkim with the Indian union in 1974. Indira Gandhi’s stature in national politics became dominant, and the “Indira Doctrine came to the fore wherein it reiterated that the problems in the region must be resolved bilaterally and that external powers should have no role in the region.”[24] When Morarji Desai became the prime minister in 1977, he wanted to alter the Indo-Soviet treaty so as to achieve “true non-alignment” but soon he realised that the relationship was an indispensable one.[25]

The Desai-Vajpayee team continued the Nehru-Indira foreign policy and managed to improve India’s ties with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.[26] According to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indian foreign policy during the Janata period reflected continuity which was more pronounced, and change was more subtle.[27] Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the prime minister was marked by an effort to improve bilateral ties between India and Pakistan. But his tenure will always be marked for tensions between India and Sri Lanka. According to P.R. Chari, “The Tamil Nadu factor, which had a disproportionate influence on the Union government, played a very significant part in guiding the course of Indo-Sri Lankan relations, culminating in the IPKF deployment and, later, withdrawal from Sri Lanka.”[28] The disastrous Indian Peace Keeping Force mission to Sri Lanka lacked clarity and failed to achieve any of its objectives. The period of 1990s witnessed the mainstreaming of regional parties and frequent change of governments, while growing economic crises did hurt India’s global image. However, under the coalition government of prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, India resisted signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and propagated a five-point formula known as the “Gujral Doctrine” to achieve peace in the subcontinent. It revealed that despite having coalition governments, some degree of continuity in the country’s foreign policy goals was possible. The subsequent emergence of bipolar coalition politics and strengthening of regional political parties led to a fragmented polity, jeopardising India’s leadership role in South Asia.

Linkages: India’s Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics

The central government has always managed to maintain control over issues of foreign policy in India. But the weakening of the Congress Party, the emergence of regional parties, competitive electoral politics and growing transnational problems have ensured that domestic politics plays a prime role in shaping foreign policy goals. One of the first episodes where the centre had to take state interests into consideration while dealing with a foreign power was the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh to Assam. Anderson argues that in the past thirty years, there has been a “low level of effective domestic restraint on the prime minister’s conduct of foreign policy,” and that “the only unambiguous case of successful overt domestic influence on foreign policy has grown out of the demand of the Assamese speakers to expel from Assam allegedly illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”[29] Subsequently, such instances have become more pronounced, and a challenge for the conduct of stable foreign policy in India.

The challenge stems from the reality that every major political party in India has its own constituency as well as ideology and it caters to a specific section of society. The mainstream national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, and the Communist Party of India have their own agenda and rallying cause. According to Suhas Palshikar, the “BJP has consistently desisted from explicitly mobilising the Hindutva constituency at the time of elections and at the all-India level since 1996 and, in this sense, has positioned itself as a ‘mainstream’ party which has the capacity to attract most social sections, notwithstanding its distinct claims regarding Hindu nationalism.”[30] However, its past communal record, its linkages with the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and its narratives of defining ‘India’ and ‘Indian’ have certainly created a wedge between the party and the Muslim community. The BJP government has come under severe pressure in Assam when it tried to introduce the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.[31] Essentially, the electoral victory of 2014 has caused the BJP to discard the hard ‘Hindutva’ agenda and adopt policies which are electorally more acceptable to all sections of society, but it faces an uphill task to win over all the communities.

The Congress, for its part, accused of minority appeasement politics, is losing ground to the BJP fast. The grand old party seems rather confused as regional parties have begun to eat into its political space. While the legacy of the party is rich, it is no longer yielding political dividends. The Left parties too have clearly lost ground. The CPI (Marxist) created a historical blunder when it withdrew support from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government on the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008. Since then, it has never recovered electorally. It was not the first time that domestic constituents were determining relations with foreign powers. The Chandra Shekhar regime too faced severe criticism from Congress leaders Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Rajiv Gandhi and the Left parties for allowing U.S. aircraft to be refuelled in India. Under pressure from these parties and left-wing groups, refuelling rights were quickly suspended.[32] Since then, society is more polarised than ever before.

In the past fifteen years, coalition politics has become the norm. Small regional political parties such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), CPI (M), and the Samajwadi Party, to name a few, have the ability to influence foreign policy in accordance with their worldview.[33] These parties are necessary for the survival of coalition governments at the centre. They have, at times, forced the government to be unresponsive to major global political changes, or to formulate policies that are not pragmatic.[34] Electoral politics in India is predominantly concerned with winning votes and seats; the growing influence of domestic factors on foreign policy has greatly affected India’s decision-making capabilities on complex issues in South Asia. 

Indeed, India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy seems to have run into rough weather not only because of China’s growing influence in the countries of South Asia but also because of domestic constituents that have become more demanding and uncompromising. The pressure of electoral politics is clearly hurting the country’s foreign policies. India’s troubled neighbourhood has implications for states near its borders. In Tamil Nadu (out of 39 Lok Sabha seats, 36 seats are controlled by the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK), in West Bengal (out of 42 Lok Sabha seats, 33 seats are controlled by the TMC), in Assam (out of 14 Lok Sabha seats, 8 seats are controlled by the BJP), and in Jammu and Kashmir (out of 6 Lok Sabha seats, 2 are controlled by the BJP). [35] Such dominance makes these states too important to be ignored by any party ruling at the centre. Barring Assam, all these states are ruled by non-BJP parties.

In Assam too, the BJPs ideology seems rather muted when compared to its Hindi heartland agenda. Negotiations with Bangladesh on the Land Boundary Agreement were an arduous task. However, the issues of illegal migration from Bangladesh and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB, 2016) will not be easy ones for the saffron party.

India-Sri Lanka Relations

This crucial bilateral relationship has been rather precarious. The process of ‘Sini-Lanka’ has started and China continues to invest heavily in the island nation. According to a report on CNN, “Sri Lanka’s decision to sign a 99-year lease with a Chinese state-owned company for the Hambantota port to service some of the billions it owes to Beijing has some observers concerned other developing nations doing business with China as part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative might fall into similar financial straits.”[36] Sri Lanka is following an “omni-directional” foreign policy that seeks to accommodate the interests of both great powers and in the process secure the best deal possible for Colombo’s development plans.[37]

India’s good days in this island nation seems rather limited. It is largely because of the stand taken by the different parties on the ‘Tamil’ issue. Parties like the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have openly supported the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. The  AIADMK’s 2009 electoral manifesto states, “Tamils should be accorded equal status with the Sinhala majority with devolution of administrative power in the Tamil-dominated provinces of Sri Lanka,” and that it “will press for a separate state of Eelam to ensure that Tamils in the island live a life of dignity.”[38] The party’s 2014 manifesto recalls a page from history, “Congress Government provided military training and supplied arms to the Sri Lankan Army for the annihilation of Sri Lankan Tamils.”[39] Not to be left behind, the DMK too has taken up the Tamil cause. Its 2014 election manifesto states, “the DMK will continue to persuade India to urge countries of the world to undertake an independent international probe into human rights violations, war crimes and genocide in Sri Lanka.” It also states, “The DMK will urge the Government of India to take immediate action for conducting a ‘referendum’ under the supervision of the UNO among the Tamils in Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka and migrated Eelam Tamils to choose a permanent political solution of their choice.”[40] The decline in India-Sri Lanka relations started to worsen when there was growing domestic pressure on the central government from Tamil political parties to support a U.S.-backed resolution at the United Nations censuring the island nation. While China, Pakistan and Bangladesh voted against the motion, India, along with twenty-three other countries, voted in favour of the U.S.-sponsored resolution in 2012.  Most importantly, it was India’s crucial vote that tilted the outcome against Colombo.[41] Irreparable damage had been done, and there were long term repercussions on India-Sri Lanka relations.

India-Bangladesh Relations

This sub-continental relationship seems to have its own share of problems, and it is getting only more complicated. While the current phase may have been described as a ‘golden chapter’ of bilateral relations between India and Bangladesh, complications remain. The Land Boundary Agreement may have worked, but issues such as sharing of Teesta Waters and illegal migration to Assam are the sticking points. The TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee is opposed to any kind of water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. When the TMC was part of the UPA government, it opposed any kind of water sharing arrangement, and now too it continues to do the same. India needs access to the Chittagong port and Bangladesh needs more hydel resources. The Modi government was unable to convince Mamata Banerjee of the need for the Teesta water sharing agreement. The voters of North Bengal are opposed to any kind of Teesta water sharing agreement with Bangladesh, and this is important for the TMC which is looking to consolidate its base in that region.

Likewise, another tricky issue hurting India-Bangladesh relations is the issue of illegal migration to Assam. The final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was released on August 31, 2019, wherein 1.9 million people were excluded. This has now become a contentious issue for all the major parties. The Citizenship Amendment Bill will grant citizenship to six communities from neighbouring countries, including the Hindus. But powerful student bodies have demanded that illegal migrants be repatriated to Bangladesh irrespective of their religion. The Indian ministry of external affairs, on the one hand, has stated, “There is no specific treaty or agreement with the Government of Bangladesh regarding repatriation of its citizens who have illegally entered into India.”[42] On the other hand, the minister of information of Bangladesh, Hasanul Haque Inu says, “This as an internal, local political issue with Indian state of Assam. It has nothing to do with Bangladesh. The Indian government has not discussed this issue with us, nor do we have any intention to take it up with India as it is an internal matter of India, our friendly neighbor.”[43] Therefore, the question of repatriation of illegal migrants to Bangladesh will test centre-state relations as well as India-Bangladesh relations. Furthermore, regarding the Indian central government’s proposal for Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya of All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) stated, ”A foreigner is a foreigner. He may be Hindu, he may be Muslim. We are against granting citizenship to foreigners on the basis of religion. The Bill must be withdrawn and scrapped immediately.”[44] What it reveals is that domestic factors have begun to influence foreign policy issues more than ever before. Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India in October 2019 is very significant because both the countries have sought to downplay the controversial NRC, citing it as an ‘‘internal issue.’’[45] However, both governments realise that this is a tricky issue and Bangladesh will play hardball in any kind of decision which seeks to repatriate large numbers of people from India to its territories.

India’s Kashmir Foreign Policy

Perhaps the biggest issue plaguing Indian foreign policy is a clear-cut approach on ‘Kashmir’ which continues to remain cloudy. In August 2019, the BJP-led government’s bold repeal of Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the grant of Union Territory status to J&K and Ladakh, has had mixed reactions. While the National Conference and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) have vociferously opposed it, the BJP has been rather brave and vocal on this issue. The Congress remains without any clear vision as several key leaders in their ‘personal capacity’ have supported the move of the central government to abrogate Article 370.[46] Pakistan continues to harp upon the ‘Kashmir issue’ primarily because it suits its political dispensation. The growing gulf between the mainstream national parties of India and regional parties of Jammu and Kashmir has only helped Pakistan become more vocal in raking up the issue of ‘azaadi’ for Kashmir at various international forums. The nuclearisation of South Asia has heightened tensions as well as escalated firepower and defense spending by the two countries. The deterioration of India-Pakistan relations has had major repercussions on society and politics in the state of J&K. The polarised opinions on peace talks with Pakistan amongst key political actors in the state of J&K have ensured that India’s Pakistan policy continues to remain clouded.

The dichotomy between foreign and domestic policies tends to be very marginal when analysing the complex problem of peace and violence in Jammu and Kashmir. While this beautiful state is an integral part of the Indian union, contradictory voices by political parties and their leaders have only led to greater confusion and given more leverage to militants in Kashmir. The PDP declared in July 2018, “The J&K issue cannot be resolved on the basis of exclusively intrastate level initiatives. It requires a combination of intrastate measures with interstate and supra-state measures.” It argues for “self-rule,” “a phased economic integration that transcends borders,” and a new economic model where the system of “dual currency will prevail,”  and “where the Indian and Pakistani rupees are both made legitimate legal tenders in the geographical areas of Greater Jammu and Kashmir (GJAK).”[47] For the National Conference, “restoration of state’s autonomy continues to be the bedrock of our policy and agenda.”[48] In addition to speaking of the need to revoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference 2014 election manifesto stated, “The article (370) is the foundation on which relationship of the state with the rest of the country is based. This article cannot be tampered with. The NC will oppose any such attempt and will press for the reversal of the erosion of the letter and spirit of this article over the years."[49] The Congress manifesto for 2014 Assembly polls promised to constitute “two fully empowered regional councils, one for Jammu and another for Kashmir,” and to take “confidence building measures (CBMs) that will not only promote cross-LoC [line of control] passenger travel and trade and people-to-people contact.” [50] The All Hurriyat Party Conference, however, is of the view that despite more than 150 meetings between India and Pakistan, Kashmir still remains on edge. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani believes that peace in Kashmir is only possible if the five-point formula which was laid down by the separatists in 2010 is acknowledged by India. Accordingly, the five point formula demands: (1) acknowledgement of the disputed nature of Jammu and Kashmir; (2) that the armed forces be withdrawn; (3) the AFSPA be repealed; (4) cases be registered against police, and the J&K government for the killing of 128 youths; and (5) release of all those detained in prison.[51]

Additionally, Islamabad continues to support the cause of ‘self-determination’ in Jammu and Kashmir. Three wars have been fought between India and Pakistan and still a solution to the ‘‘Kashmir issue’’ has proved to be a herculean task for all the parties concerned. The Kargil conflict in 1999 and ‘‘surgical strikes’’ in 2016 proved that although the Indian military forces still had an edge over Pakistan, cross-border Pakistan-sponsored terrorism could not be halted.

Barring the political parties of Jammu & Kashmir and a few others, the abrogation of Article 370 was welcomed by most of the parties. The clampdown on communication and internet services and detention of Kashmiri leaders had, however, led to an uneasy calm, and the Indian government has to do more to gain the respect of the people of the region. Pakistan has used every opportunity to internationalise the issue of Kashmir, and it has been quick to highlight the human rights violations in the state at the seventy-fourth session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019. While the move might not have received much international support, it is still a constant reminder that lasting peace in J&K is still a long way away.

Acting East

Attaining foreign policy objectives will invariably be a Herculean task if mainstream and regional parties continue to look in opposite directions. In contrast to other issues, there is a marked distinction in approach when it comes to India’s ambitious Act East Policy (AEP). There is complete unanimity amongst all parties concerned that the success of this policy is vital for the prosperity of North East India. Through soft power and the emphasis on 3 Cs—“commerce, connectivity and culture”—the AEP can be truly rewarding in the long run.[52] Projects such as India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport, and the Rhi-Tiddim Road will play an important role in strengthening India’s relations with its neighbours and promote economic growth and development in this region. Border haats along the India-Myanmar and India-Bangladesh borders are important for closer bonds between local communities and for facilitating trade.

However, such an ambitious policy can be meaningfully realised only when activities and direction of non-state bodies are in sync with the mainstream political institutions. If Afghanistan provides “strategic depth” for Pakistan, the AEP is seen as a natural extension of India’s foreign policy and Myanmar is its keystone.

The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram share borders with Myanmar. Civilisational linkages remain strong; ethnic as well as racial affinities continue to be a profound feature of tribal communities along this border. Traditional accounts suggest that a Tai prince named Sukapha arrived in Assam in 1228 CE from the kingdom of Mau Lung which is now divided between Shan and Kachin States in Myanmar and Dehong Dai autonomous region in Yunnan Province, South West China.[53] Close linkages between tribal groups of Northeast India and their counterparts in Myanmar is well documented. While the Chin-Kuki communities migrated to Manipur from the Chin state of Myanmar, some Naga groups are found in north Manipur and also in the Somra Tract in upper Burma.[54] The Mizo and Chin communities of Myanmar share a common heritage. A porous border and border management initiatives by the governments of India and Myanmar has enabled Chin children to attend Mizo schools, and relationships and marriages between Chin and Mizo are relatively common.[55]

The presence of civilisational linkages, however, has not always been a boon for the states of North East India. Cross-border insurgency continues to be a challenge for the Indian authorities. Willem van Schendel notes that “insurgent groups along the border between Southeast Asia and South Asia include Arakanese, Jumma, Chin, Meithei, Naga, and several other groups fighting for regional autonomy or independence from India, Burma, and Bangladesh.”[56] Though activities of the various separatist movements have “flattened out,” the major ramification has been the deepening of social cleavages. The social fabric of the North East is fraying due to overlapping territorial claims, turf wars between insurgent groups, poor governance in different autonomous councils, the ‘peace accords’ that are yet to yield results, and the heated debate of ‘locals’ versus ‘outsiders.’

While the government of India has improved its security ties with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, the search for an ‘honorable solution’ to the problem of ‘ethnic homelands’ continues to be elusive. This divergence between the lofty goals of the AEP and the domestic players has only contributed to compound the miseries of the region. The AEP can only be successful if the Indian authorities can overcome challenges emanating from the domestic front. The AEP is welcomed by all groups and constituents in the North East, unlike in the case of other divisive issues such as the “Tamil Elam” or ‘‘Azaadi for Kashmir’’ or issues of illegal migration, where there is a razor sharp split between mainstream political parties as well as between national and regional parties. However, the problems of poor governance in the North East and the fragmented social order have made the AEP rather half-baked.

Supremacy of the ‘Second Image’

To conclude, the ‘second image’ has become more dominant in shaping the foreign policy of India. Domestic structures, the shape of regional politics and issues of cultural affinity will determine the future course of Indian foreign policy. While leadership factors will play an important role in giving pace to a particular policy, negotiations between the Centre and the states on issues which have a transborder dimension will go on. Regional elites will resist any kind of move by the ‘centre’ which will hurt regional aspirations and their own political status. The federal framework has ensured that states and their respective chief ministers have become more powerful and vocal when it comes to protecting the interests of their own states. This is especially true when the party at the centre is different from the party that controls the state. This dichotomy was not so visible till the 1970s, but now competitive electoral politics has ensured that achieving foreign policy goals will be based on compromises and hard bargaining between the centre and the states.

Regional political forces are increasingly making their presence felt in India’s bilateral relations. Regional and hardline elements often pick soft issues to highlight complex bilateral issues. For example, film actors and cricketing ties with Pakistan are targeted by right wing nationalist forces; likewise, in Tamil Nadu, under pressure from the political leader, S. Jayalalithaa, Sri Lankan cricket players were not allowed to play in the Indian Premier League games in Chennai. Strong regional sentiments and growth of coalition politics have ensured that “public opinion is likely to play a greater role in shaping the future of India’s foreign policies,” and “electoral competition has meant that marginal voters matter more for electoral success.”[57]

The mainstream parties cannot ignore regional aspirations and sentiments. An entire slew of issues such as the popular opposition to capitalism and economic reforms in India, U.S. policies and interventions, and nuclear disarmament are far too complex for the larger electorate and they simply do not resonate with the Indian voter. A survey on Indian public opinion on foreign policy conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2006-2007 found that foreign policy issues were important for the Indian voter, but this was largely based on a small urban sample size.[58] Based on the survey, D. Kapur argues that it is “widespread evidence that the mass public is poorly informed about foreign policy issues,” and that “the survey of foreign policy attitudes of Indians supports the common belief that a majority of Indians have little interest in foreign policy issues.”

Another survey (the National Election Study 2014—Pre‐Poll Survey Findings in 21 States) conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi) reveals that issues of foreign policy are seen as important by less than one percent of the sampled respondents.[59] The Indian electorate is still guided by issues of caste, community, religion and ethnic identity while voting. Electoral alliance and distribution of party tickets reveal that politics in India is still shaped by primordial issues and it will be exploited by political parties for electoral gain

The regional parties based on ethnic or community lines, each having its own electoral agenda and vote bank, are playing a critical role in shaping India’s foreign policy. Except for the Left parties, the BJP and the Congress more or less have a more or less similar world view. However, it is too early to judge whether the Narendra Modi government has initiated major foreign policy changes or brought about concrete dividends. Only a small shift has been made towards Israel by the current BJP-led government and a policy of multi-alignment seems to be taking shape. Worryingly, an area of concern is that there is an ‘‘elite discord’’ and lack of consensus in foreign policy. The discord operates in two different ways: first, there are major differences of opinion between the key leaders of national and regional political parties on issues of foreign policy. Secondly, there is a lack of synchronisation of foreign policy goals and domestic interests, particularly regional onesinterests. The politics of regional appeasement along withas well as communitarian appeasement has become a norm in Indian politics, which has hurt the robustness of the country’s foreign policy.

India is surrounded by countries that are vital to its security, and its benign dominance over them has helped India achieve its regional hegemon status. This conception has changed in the last two decades and the neighbouring countries have begun to play hardball politics, wherein they are ready to shift allegiance to fulfill their own national interests. India’s ‘‘big brother’’ image has already faced criticism from its neighbours. In the short run, if India does not forge closer, multifaceted alliances with its smaller neighbours, an assertive China will further increase its footprint in the subcontinent.

Shubhrajeet Konwer is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University. He completed his MA and MPhil programmes at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In 2010, he was awarded a PhD at Gauhati University in Guwahati, Assam for his work on International borders in Northeast India. His areas of interest are foreign policy, security and border studies. His most recent article is “Hallmarks of Current Indian Foreign Policy,” Indian Foreign Affairs Journal 13, no.3, July-September 2018. He has edited the book, Frontier States: Essays on Democracy, Society and Security in North East India (DVS Publishers, 2015). He has completed several research projects sponsored by the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, government of Assam, and the Axom Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan, Guwahati. He keenly follows issues of electoral politics in India and has been involved with the activities of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.


[1] Ashley J. Tellis, “India as a New Global Power,” 42. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/tellis.india.global.power.final.pdf, accessed on September 24, 2018.

[2] Vendulka Kubalkova, introduction to Foreign Policy in a Constructed World, ed., Vendulka Kubalkova (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), 17-18; also see Juliet Kaarbo, “A Foreign Policy Analysis Perspective on the Domestic Politics Turn in IR Theory,” International Studies Review 17, no. 2 (2015): 189-216.

[3] Kenneth Waltz, Man, The State and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 123.

[4] Kaarbo, “A Foreign Policy Analysis Perspective ,” 19.

[5] Patrick James and Jean Sébastien Rioux, “International Crises and Linkage Politics: The Experiences of the United States, 1953-1994,” Political Research Quarterly 51, no. 3 (Sept. 1998), 781-812.  Also see, James N. Rosenau, Linkage Politics (New York: Free Press, 1969).

[6] Gideon Rose,“Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy,”World Politics 51, no. 1 (1998): 144-172.

[7] Fareed Zakaria, and Jack Snyder, “Realism and Domestic Politics: A Review Essay,” International Security 17, no. 1 (1992): 177.

[8] Kaarbo, “A Foreign Policy Analysis Perspective.”

[9] Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42, no. 3. (Summer, 1988): 427-460.

[10] James D. Fearon, “Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, and Theories of International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science 1, no. 1 (1998): 289–313.

[11] Mark Souva, “Foreign Policy Determinants: Comparing Realist and Domestic-Political Models of Foreign Policy,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 22 (2005):149-163.

[12] Margaret G. Hermann, “How Decision Units Shape Foreign Policy: A Theoretical Framework,” International Studies Review 3, no. 2 (2001): 47-81.

[13] Kripa Sridharan, “Explaining the Phenomenon of Change in Indian Foreign Policy under the National Democratic Alliance Government,” Contemporary South Asia 15, no. 1 (2006): 75-91; also see, Joe D. Hagan, Political Opposition and Foreign Policy in Comparative Perspective (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993). On the fragmented nature of foreign policy decision-making under coalition governments, see Joe D. Hagan, Philip P. Everts, Haruhiro Fukui and John D. Stempel, “Foreign policy by Coalition: Deadlock, Compromise and Anarchy,” International Studies Review 3, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 169-216.

[14] Ibid, 171.

[15] Hellen V. Milner and B. Peter Rosendorff, “Trade Negotiations, Information and Domestic Politics: The Role of Domestic Groups,” Economics & Politics 8, no. 2 (1996): 145-189.

[16] Ibid, 149.

[17] Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42, no. 3 (1998), 427. Also see, Peter Gourevitch, “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics,” International Organization 32, no. 4 (1978): 881-912.

[18] Waltz, Man, The State and War.

[19] T.A. Keenleyside, “The Inception of Indian Foreign Policy: The non‐Nehru Contribution,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 4, no. 2 (1981): 63-78. Also see, Taufiq A. Nizami, “Jawaharlal Nehru and India’s Foreign Policy (1939-1947),” in Studies in the Foreign Relations of India, eds., P.M. Joshi and M.A. Nayeem (Hyderabad: State Archives, Government of Andhra Pradesh, 1975), 341.

[20] Rajen Harshe, “India’s Foreign Policy under Nehru and its Contemporary Relevance,” Contemporary Perspectives 1, no. 1 (2007): 33-45.

[21] Paul F. Power, “Indian Foreign Policy: The Age of Nehru,” The Review of Politics 26, no. 2 (1964): 257.

[22] Ibid, 259-60.

[23] William L. Richter, “Mrs. Gandhi’s Neighborhood: Indian Foreign Policy toward Neighboring Countries,” African and Asian Studies 22, no. 3 (1987): 250-265.

[24] C. Raja Mohan, ‘Beyond India's Monroe Doctrine’, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, https://mea.gov.in/articles-in-indian-media.htm?dtl/15281/Beyond+India+s+Monroe+Doctrine, accessed on June 10, 2019.

[25] A.G. Noorani, “Foreign Policy of the Janata Party Government,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 5, no. 4 (1978): 216-228.

[26] Ibid, 217.

[27] Ibid, 228.

[28] P. Ranga Chari, “The IPKF Experience in Sri Lanka,” ACDIS Occasional Paper, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/4810592.pdf, accessed on October 14, 2018.

[29] Walter K. Andersen, “The Domestic Roots of Indian Foreign Policy,” Asian Affairs: An American Review 10, no. 3 (1983): 45-53.

[30] Suhas Palshikar, “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38, no. 4 (2015): 719-735.

[31] The Hindu, May 26, 2018: With the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, the government plans to change the definition of illegal migrants. The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 15, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide citizenship to illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. However, the Act does not have a provision for Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmediyas who also face persecution in Pakistan.

[32] “India and its Neighbours,” Strategic Survey 92, no. 1 (1991): 160-171.

[33] Subhash Kapila, “India: Foreign Policy Under Leftists’ Siege,” South Asia Analysis Group, paper no. 1603 (2005), www.southasiananalysis.org, in Nitya Singh, “How to Tame Your Dragon: An Evaluation of India's Foreign Policy Toward China,” India Review 11, no. 3 (2012): 139-160.

[34] “N-fission Splits Left Front Allies,” Indian Express, April 2, 2009; “Teesta Pact with Bangladesh put off after Mamata Sulk,” The Times of India, September 6, 2011.

[35] The state of Jammu and Kashmir was under President’s Rule since June 20, 2018.

[36] Jamie Tarabay, “With Sri Lankan Port Acquisition, China adds another ‘Pearl’ to its ‘String,’” https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/03/asia/china-sri-lanka-string-of-pearls-intl/index.html, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[37] Darren J. Lim and Rohan Mukherjee, “Does Debt Pay? China and the Politics of Investment in Sri Lanka,” https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/does-debt-pay-china-and-the-politics-of-investment-in-sri-lanka/, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[38] “Lanka issue dominates AIADMK manifesto,” available at https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/lanka-issue-dominates-aiadmk-manifesto-392139, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[39] “Lok Sabha General Election 2014, Election Manifesto of the AIADMK,” http://www.archivoelectoral.org/archivo/doc/ProgramaAIADMKParlamentariasIndia2014.pdf, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[40] “2014 DMK Manifesto,” https://www.scribd.com/document/214709689/Full-text-DMK-s-manifesto-for-2014-general-election, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[41] “War Crimes against Tamils: India Votes against Sri Lanka in UN,” India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/world/europe/story/sri-lanka-war-crimes-unhrc-us-resolution-geneva-96784-2012-03-22, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[42] “Repatriation of Illegal Bangladeshi Citizens,” March 14, 2018, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=177455, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[43] “NRC is India’s ‘Local Internal Matter’ with ‘Ethnic Undertones’: Bangladesh,” The Hindustan Times, August 1, 2018.

[44] “AASU Demands Withdrawal of Citizenship Amendment Bill,” Indian Express, July 3, 2018.

[45] “Bangladesh reassured on NRC, shouldn't make a crisis out of nothing,” Live Mint, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/-bangladesh-reassured-on-nrc-shouldn-t-make-a-crisis-out-of-nothing-11570329835875.html, accessed on June, 10, 2019.

[46] “Dissensions Rock Congress over Abrogation of Article 370,” India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/congress-article-370-1578186-2019-08-07, accessed on September 22, 2019.

[47] “Self-Rule Framework,” Jammu & Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, http://jkpdp.org/self-rule/self-rule-framework/, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[48] “Jammu Kashmir National Conference,” Election Manifesto, http://www.jknc.in/UploadFiles/6801b76c-e47a-41f1-bf31-7087c2213467__Election%20manifesto.pdf, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[49] “National Conference Pledges to Strive for Restoration of Jammu and Kashmir Autonomy,” https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-national-conference-pledges-to-strive-for-restoration-of-jammu-and-kashmir-autonomy-2038707, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[50] “Jammu and Kashmir polls: Congress releases manifesto, promises reforms,” Economic Times, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/jammu-and-kashmir-polls-congress-releases-manifesto-promises-reforms/articleshow/45251314.cms, accessed on October12, 2018.

[51] “Dialogue with India Impossible Till 5 Points Acknowledged: Hurriyat Leader SAS Geelani,” https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-dialogue-with-india-impossible-till-5-points-acknowledged-hurriyat-leader-sas-geelani-2071413, accessed on October 12, 2018.

[52] “Act East: India’s ASEAN Journey,” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?24216/Act+East+Indias+ASEAN+Journey, accessed on September 23, 2019.

[53] Stephen Morey, “Ahom and Tangsa: Case studies of Language Maintenance and Loss in North East India,” in Language Documentation & Conservation, ed., Hugo C. Cardoso (Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014), 50.

[54] S.K. Acharya, “Ethnic Processes in North-Eastern India,” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no. 21 (May 21, 1988): 1068-1077.

[55] Kirsten McConnachie, “Boundaries and Belonging in the Indo-Myanmar Borderlands: Chin Refugees in Mizoram,” Journal of Refugee Studies 31, no. 3 (2018): 314-333.

[56] Willem van. Schendel, “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia,” in Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space, ed., Paul H. Kratoska et al. (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005), 307.

[57] D. Kapur, “Public Opinion and Indian Foreign Policy,” India Review 8, no. 3 (2009): 286–305.

[58] Ibid, 290-295.

[59] “National Election Study 2014—Pre‐Poll Survey Findings (21 States),“ http://www.lokniti.org/pdf/all-india-findings.pdf, accessed on October 14, 2018.

[60] Ibid, 305.