Is Indian diplomacy too quiet?

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

“The US and India have different approaches about their foreign policy actions. 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 discrete as possible.

Is this 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 too much concern about external views. Advertising one’s action would only attract interference.

Two, India has little inclination to broadcast its accomplishments overseas. Nehruvian foreign policy liked to limit itself to moralistic speeches. India’s strategic horizon was confined to its immediate neighbourhood. India was already resented enough by its smaller neighbours that boasting about Indian power would only have made life more difficult.

Three, quiet diplomacy makes more sense than its polar opposite, loud militarism, when as a country you have limited resources and capacities. This describes India to a T for much of its independent existence. Hard power was not seen as an instrument of Indian foreign policy because of a widespread recognition of the country’s poverty.

Four, India has a strong intellectual streak of pacificism, multilateralism and generally “do no evil.” This can be traced to Mahatma Gandhi, but also to an older tradition of nonviolence. Muscle flexing and the like are not part of this tradition.

But is this sustainable in the contemporary age? My view is that it isn’t.
The number one reason is that India can no longer try to keep its foreign policy message in the hands of small 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 it is this that New Delhi is painfully unwilling or unaware to recognize – so far.

Also, India’s global interests, especially in the economic and security spheres, are now large enough that getting a little extra PR would help the country’s interests. This means advertising successes to the larger world, telling them about what Indian power is capable of. The US, as the Indian official had mentioned, leverages its superpower-dom with great efficiency. Other governments agree to the US because they believe “resistance is futile” — but this is the essence of soft power, the ability to make others think like you’re without coercion.

Time, therefore, for a re-think on getting the Incredible Strategic India story out there.

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