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Transformation of India’s Foreign Policy

  • Categories
    International Relations: Growth & Connectivity
  • Published
    3rd Aug, 2022


  • The foreign policy of any country, unlike domestic policy, is usually considered to be stable. Foreign policy is both static and dynamic. Changing dynamics in foreign policy would mean the ability to change or mould policy according to changes in the country’s external environment or a revolutionary change in the country’s domestic political scene. A dynamic foreign policy shows a greater appetite for risk-taking in comparison to a static one. The foreign policy of any country, including India, contains both static and dynamic features.


  • Assessing India's evolution since 1947 is a compelling idea as many features of contemporary India find their origins in that decade. The first considerations of India’s ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policies, economic reforms, outreach to the United States and China, the perception of India as a regional power, India's launch of nuclear weapon and missile programs, India's Vaccine Maitri program which "underlines our credentials as the pharmacy of the world".
  • The core concepts that defined India's political and economic development before this period—were economic self-reliance, socialism, secularism, and nonalignment.
  • Nehru’s instrumental role in defining India’s external relations and establishing “non-alignment” and “Panchsheel” as the twin pillars of Indian foreign policy is remarkable.

The Cold War was a period (1945-1991) of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and its satellite states (the Eastern European countries), and the United States with its allies (the Western European countries) after World War II.

  • The Cold War's end made it exceedingly difficult for India to continue with its policies of non-alignment and Third World solidarity. India's response to the ongoing Cold War was two-fold:
  • At one level, it took particular care in staying away from two alliances.
  • Second, it raised its voice against the newly decolonized countries becoming part of these alliances. India's policy was neither negative nor passive. India was in favour of actively intervening in world affairs to soften Cold War rivalries.

Indian foreign policy can be understood by dividing it into six broad phases:

Phase 1: Era of Non-alignment Movement (NAM) (1946-1962)

  • It was an era of a bipolar world, led by the US and USSE. At that time India’s objectives were to resist the constraining of choices and dilution of its sovereignty as it rebuilt its economy and consolidated its integrity.
  • Its parallel goal was to lead Asia and Africa in a quest for a more equitable nation.
  • The 1962 conflict with China not only brought this period to an end but in a manner that significantly damaged India’s standing on NAM.

Phase 2: The Decade of Realism and Recovery (1962-1971)

  • Post-Sino-India war (1962) India made pragmatic choices on security and political challenges despite a paucity of resources.
  • India looked beyond non-alignment in the interest of national security by concluding defense arrangements with the United States in 1964.
  • Another crucial event in this phase of vulnerability was the mounting of external pressure on the Kashmir issue.
  • Tashkent Agreement (1966), resulted in India and Pakistan agreeing to withdraw all armed forces to pre-war positions, to restore diplomatic relations; and to discuss economic, refugee, and other questions. In addition, a cease-fire had been secured by the United Nations Security Council on Sept. 22, 1965.
  • India was disenchanted because this agreement did not contain a no-war pact or any renunciation of Pakistan's aggression in Kashmir (as Pakistan was an ally of the US). as a result, India now started tilting toward USSR.

Phase 3: The phase of Regional Assertion and economic vulnerability (1971-1991)

  • In the third phase, India has a major ‘regional assertion’, and it remarkably used its resources when it liberated Bangladesh in the India-Pakistan war in 1971.
  • The phase ended with the Indian peacekeeping force's ‘misadventure’ in Sri Lanka. In 1987 on the account of atrocities being committed by the Sri Lankan military on the hapless Tamil population, the Tamil Nadu government was demanding Indian intervention to ensure the safety and security of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.
  • It was a particularly complex phase as the US-China-Pakistan axis which came into being at this time seriously threatened India’s prospects.
  • It was the time when India had to face sanctions from the US and its allies after conducting a Peaceful nuclear test in Pokhran.
  • Later the collapse of the USSR and the economic crisis in 1991, the Gulf War (1991-1992), the break-up of the USSR (1991), long-standing economic stagnation, and domestic turbulence came together in 1991, creating a balance of payment crisis in India. All of this compelled India to revisit its principles of both domestic and foreign policy.

Phase 4: Pursuit for Strategic Autonomy (1991-1998)

  • The collapse of the USSR in 1991 led to the emergence of the unipolar world led by the United States. It shifted India’s focus on safeguarding strategic autonomy.
  • This quest for strategic autonomy was particularly focused on securing its nuclear weapon option (Pokhran II 1998).
  • It was also a period when India started engaging with the US more intensively in addition to countries like Israel and countries in the ASEAN block.
  • India emphasized the importance of unilateral accommodation for friendly and warm relations with India’s neighbours and while doing so it resorted to the Gujral Doctrine.

The five principles are:

  1. With neighbours such as Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, India does not seek reciprocity but offers and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust.
  2. No South Asian country should permit its territory to be used against the interest of another south Asian nation.
  3. Countries should not interfere in the internal affairs of one another.
  4. All South Asian countries should respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
  5. They should settle all their disputes via peaceful bilateral negotiations. The essence of the Gujral Doctrine has been that being the largest country in South Asia, India can extend unilateral concessions to neighbours in the sub-continent.

Phase 5: Balancing Power (1998-2014)

  • The quest for strategic autonomy to position itself as an independent nuclear state (Pokhran II 1998) guided India to acquire the necessary attributes to balance out the rise of China in the region.
  • It is reflected in India-US nuclear deal (123 Agreement) as well as a better understanding with the West at large.
  • During this phase, India was successful in making a common cause with China on trade and climate change, along with this that it was able to consolidate further ties with Russia, which helped BRICS in establishing itself as a major global forum.

Phase 6: Energic Diplomacy (2014-Present)

  • The last phase came to an end in 2014 with the beginning of the present phase, the sixth phase. India now opted for very energetic diplomacy. It did so by recognizing that we are entering the world of convergences and issue-based arrangements.
  • In this phase of transitional geopolitics, India's policy of non-alignment has turned into Multi Alignment.
  • India being a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a grouping of four democracies –India, Australia, the US, and Japan is a deliberate attempt to undermine the existing mechanisms of interstate interaction, with narrow-format exclusive groups that contribute to the destabilization of the situation in Asia.
  • The newly established Quad in the West, comprising India, Israel, the U.A.E, and the U.S. is a promising initiative given the concerns over China continue to mount.


In the dynamics of the world, India invariably adheres to a set of basic principles on which no compromise has been made. these principles include:


  • Panchsheel or Five Virtues which were first formally enunciated in the Agreement on Trade between the Tibet region of China and India signed on April 29, 1954, and later evolved to act as the basis of the conduct of international relations globally. These Five Principles are:
    1. Mutual respect’s territorial integrity and sovereignty
    2. Mutual non-aggression
    3. Mutual non-interference
    4. Equality and mutual benefit
    5. Peaceful co-existence
  • VasudhaivaKutumbakam (The World is One Family) can be related to this is the concept of SabkaSaath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas. In other words, the entire world community is a part of one single large global family and the Members of the family must live together in peace and harmony, work and grow together and have trust in each other for mutual benefits.

India is Opposed to Export of Ideologies and Change of Regimes

  • India believes in and supports Democracy; however, India does not believe in the export of ideologies. India has therefore endeavoured to deal with the government of the day, be it a democracy, monarchy, or military dictatorship. India believes that it is best left to the people of the country to choose or remove their leaders and retain or change the form of governance.
  • By extension of the above principle, India does not endorse the idea of regime change or violation of territorial integrity in a particular country by the use of force or other means by another country or a group of countries. (Ex. US interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, or Russia’s intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, etc.)
  • At the same time, India does not hesitate in promoting democracy wherever potential exists;(Ex. Afghanistan)

India does not endorse unilateral Sanctions /Military Actions:

  • India does not endorse the idea of imposing sanctions/military action against any individual country by another country or a group of countries unless these sanctions/ military actions have been approved by the United Nations as a result of international consensus.
  • India, therefore, contributes only to such Peace-Keeping military operations which are part of the UN Peace-keeping Forces.

‘NO’ for Interference; ‘YES’ for Intervention

  • India does not believe in interference in the internal affairs of other countries. However, if an act - innocent or deliberate - by any country has the potential of impinging upon India’s national interests, India does not hesitate in quick and timely intervention. (Examples: Bangladesh 1971, IPKF in Sri Lanka (1987-90), Maldives (1988).

Constructive Engagement Over Aggression

  • India advocates the policy of constructive engagement over aggression. It believes that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate matters. War is no solution; after every war, the conflicting Parties ultimately come to negotiating table by which time much damage has already been done.
  • The policy of engagement is not allowed, however, to be misunderstood as India’s weakness. Strong and loud messages emanate from India every time our patience is tested.

Strategic Autonomy: ‘Yes’ to Partnerships and ‘No’ to Alliances

  • Independence of decision-making and strategic autonomy is yet other significant features of India’s foreign policy. India thus believes in Partnerships and shuns Alliances, particularly military alliances.

Global Consensus on Issues of Global Dimensions

  • India advocates a global debate and global consensus on issues of global dimensions such as world trade regime, climate change, terrorism, intellectual property rights, and global governance.


  • Need for greater realism in policy: India needs to change the image of a reluctant power.
  • Need for a Strong Economy: An expansionary foreign policy cannot be built on the margins of the global economy.
  • Need for Multi alignment: Any quest to maximize options and expand space naturally requires engaging multiple players.
  • Need for Greater Risk: Low-risk foreign policy is only likely to produce limited rewards.
  • Need for reading into things right: Foreign policy is all about dealing with global contradictions.

Challenges to India’s International Relations and Foreign Policy Goals

  1. Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization & Weapons Control: The danger posed by an increasingly weaponized world, is a challenge that seems to have no immediate remedy. The effort to restrict such weapons and their technology from the hands of irresponsible states and non-state actors is also not going anywhere. In such a scenario, India has no option but to take steps to review its nuclear weapons program and policy.
  2. Energy security: The current unilateral US restrictions on sourcing of Iranian and Venezuelan oil have proved to be particularly tricky with India conscious of its strategic dependence on the US and the need to keep its centuries-old relations with Iran and its friendly relations with Venezuela on an even keel.
  3. Water: Foreign policy and diplomacy ensure that India’s legitimate claims are not surrendered when negotiating multilateral or global water-sharing agreements. Example: Effects of fall or rise of the level of water in the river Ganga affect our relations with Bangladesh.
  4. Food security: We faced food shortages till about the late 1970s when queuing up weekly at the neighborhood ration shop or the ‘Food Control Order’ limiting the consumption of certain items in public functions like marriages. India has crossed that hump, but the steady rise in the global population, finite resources like land and water, and anticipated future decline in food productivity increases, means that we have to be alert to this problem and the global scramble for food that may occur in the future.
  5. Terrorism: It hardly respects international boundaries. Despite the best effort nationally, without international cooperation, it is impossible to stamp out this global menace without global cooperation. It is something Indian foreign policy and diplomacy have been very active about for three or four decades now.
  6. Climate change and environmental degradation: India has just about come to the take-off stage of its economic growth. Unfortunately, without deft diplomacy, the traditional polluters seek to curb the growth path of emerging and developing economies by imposing mitigation measures, which are unfair to those who started industrialization late. India is fully committed to resolving the negative aspects of climate change and environmental degradation, but cannot be forced to accept the same conditions as those imposed on the more developed countries.
  7. Pandemics, drug trafficking, and human trafficking are among the other major problems that the international community needs to work together on to curb the fallout of these issues. India’s foreign policy has been revised to take into account our role in the global war against these problems and our diplomats have been very active on this front.
  8. Growing Russia-China Axis: Russia is beginning to display more significant interest in its periphery’s affairs. Moreover, the sanctions imposed on Russia after Crimea's annexation in 2014 have pushed Russia towards a tighter embrace of China's Foreign Policy Features of the Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Foreign Policy Features of the Governments under Prime Minister Narendra Modi:

  • Neighbourhood First Policy: One of the major policy initiatives taken by the Modi government is to focus back on its immediate neighbors in South Asia. Gujral doctrine was also an important approach where India made its relation with its neighborhood.
    • India’s focus on connectivity is also gradually extending outward, whether to Chabahar in Iran or Kaladan in Myanmar.
    • With Bangladesh, the completion of the Land Boundary Agreement, improvements in energy connectivity, and steps taken towards accessing the port of Chittagong have all been crucial developments.
  • All SAARC leaders at a swearing-in ceremony in 2014;
  • BIMSTEC leaders at a swearing-in ceremony in 2019;
  • SAARC Satellite;
  • Act East Policy: With ‘Act East,’ the purpose was to show greater intent in realising what had long been an aspiration for India to become an integral part of Asia. The new policy emphasizes a more proactive role for India in ASEAN and East Asian countries
  • Connectivity, commercial ties, and cultural bonds are the three ‘C’s of Modi’s Foreign Policy mantra – the huge public boost in bonding with the diaspora is unprecedented;
  • Three ‘D’s which drive India’s ties with the countries of the world are, democracy, demography, and demand;
  • Link West policy: In an attempt to strengthen ties with India's western neighbors especially the gulf countries government proposed this policy to complement its Act East policy concerning East Asia.
  • Leading role’ globally for India, rather than just as a ‘balancing force’
  • A greater role for military and defense diplomacy – willingness to participate in the global arms market as a supplier rather than as a major buyer only.
  • Indian Ocean outreach: Through this policy initiative, India started to reach out to its maritime neighbors in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with proposals for enhanced economic and security cooperation.
  • Project Mausam: On the back of growing Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean region, which India considers its area of responsibility, the Modi administration has introduced Project Mausam, which is believed to rival the Chinese Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative.
  • Cooperation with Pacific Islands: PM Modi chose to visit Fiji soon after democracy was re-established in the island country after 8 years.
  • Para Diplomacy: In this, each state and city would be encouraged to forge special relations with countries or federal states of another country or even cities of their interest.
  • Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) Policy: India’s SAGAR policy is an integrated regional framework, unveiled by the Indian Prime Minister during a visit to Mauritius in March 2015.
  • India's Vaccine Diplomacy: Vaccine diplomacy is the branch of global health diplomacy in which a nation uses the development or delivery of vaccines to strengthen ties with other nations.
    • It could provide innovative opportunities to promote India’s foreign policy and diplomatic relations between nations in its neighbourhood and across the globe.
  • ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy: It is aimed at strengthening and expanding of India’s relations with Central Asia countries. These countries include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Shortcomings of India’s Foreign Policy:

  • The country’s strategic thinking continues to be guided by bureaucracy rather than strategic thinkers and specialists.
  • A fundamental lacuna inherent in the country’s strategic behavior is it functions without a grand strategic blueprint.
  • Sustained negotiations are necessary for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership: public spats with countries like China are not the solution.


  • We now have a broad canvas of the evolution of India’s foreign policy through the six historical phases. The policy has evolved and changed over the last seventy-four years, usually at a steady pace, but sometimes drastically to respond to fast-changing global or regional scenarios. Fortunately, foreign policy evokes greater consensus across the Indian political spectrum and therefore, has been easier to mould and change, than domestic policy on which governments of the day have faced vehement opposition.
  • Indian foreign policy has to manage risks but without foregoing the chance to profit from opportunities that may also emerge. With changing times, diplomacy needs to be marked by both prudence and agility. Under the present regime, India has demonstrated its will to play a leading role in the global arena and be counted as a ‘pole’ in its own right. Of course, history, like life, is not a linear extrapolation from the past. Thus, as India continues to rise and its goals have greater implications for international society, India’s foreign policy must continue to evolve through the challenges it is subjected to and not through the historical lens.

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