More continuity, less change

May 12 2014, 05:36 IST
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SummaryWhy the overall framework of foreign policy will be hard to alter

ASPIRANTS to the post of national security advisor might be burning the midnight oil to fashion foreign policy and security strategies. They may have many ideas to revamp policy, reshape institutions and open new chapters in relations with other countries. But once the initial euphoria is over and the new government settles down to business, there is likely to be continuity rather than change.

No government makes foreign policy in solitary splendour. The broad strategy outlined by any government will not be different from the traditional foreign policy that has enjoyed general consensus. The insight, judgement and instinct of professional diplomats will prevail, as has been seen in times of change in the past.

The Morarji Desai governments policy of genuine non-alignment and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee governments nuclear tests are cited as instances of fundamental change brought about by new governments in their initial stages. But neither of these was fundamental or unanticipated. Genuine non-alignment simply meant distancing India from the Soviet Union. But the government soon discovered the extent of our involvement with the USSR and quietly went about business as usual.

The 1998 nuclear tests were not spontaneous. Since Nehrus days, successive governments had maintained the nuclear option and invested in explosive technology. The timing of the 1998 tests was determined more by the CTBT than by ideology. India chose to face sanctions for tests rather than for not signing the CTBT. The fact that subsequent governments endorsed the tests is enough proof of continuity in nuclear policy. Talk of a new government possibly reviewing the no first use doctrine provoked widespread reaction. But that proposal seems to have been dropped now.

Practical matters rather than ideology have determined our relations with neighbours, including Pakistan. Changes in policy have only been triggered by negative incidents. No government has advocated war as an option against Pakistan. The Kargil war came after a peace offensive by Vajpayee and, for all its tough talk, the Indian side refrained from crossing the Line of Control. A new government may criticise Manmohan Singhs extra mile policy, but it will not abandon the principle of reciprocity, as war is not an option between two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Changes in the Sri Lanka policy will depend on where the DMK and AIADMK stand after the election. But even if the prime minister is from one of these parties, there will only be a war of words with Sri Lanka.

The case

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