The Congress Party’s Foreign Policy Legacy

The upcoming Indian general elections, likely to take place in 2014, provide an ideal opportunity to examine the foreign policy legacy of the United Progressive Alliance, the coalition of parties governing India under the leadership of the Congress Party.

A central challenge to the UPA’s foreign policy during its eight year tenure has been the rise in Chinese activity in traditionally Indian spheres of influence, argued Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute at a discussion hosted by the South Asia Center. The UPA’s response to Beijing has been to avoid escalation in instances of border incursions such as those in 2006, 2008, and most recently in early 2013.

Aware that Beijing’s military outperforms Delhi’s both in size and capabilities, the UPA has strategically sought to build defense and deterrent capabilities and has established a new strike core within its Army dedicated to balancing China. This build up however has been largely lethargic and devoid of coordination at varying levels, leading to progress stagnating at the nascent stages.

During the UPA’s tenure, however, India has made notable progress in its relationships with Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Pakistan—albeit to varying degrees and in varying contexts. Delhi’s growing strategic partnerships with Tokyo and Vietnam, as well as a Free Trade Agreement with Seoul, serve as success stories, while even India’s relations with Pakistan have improved in terms of trade and business development.

The UPA, despite vested interests in the Middle East, has lacked the leverage needed achieve its goals. Joshi asserted that the risk-averse Ministry of External Affairs lacks the will to fill the emerging power vacuum in the Middle East. Moreover, Joshi claimed that India is hesitant to align itself with over-militarized US-led campaigns in the region given that India’s popularity ratings independent of those campaigns are quite high, especially in Afghanistan. 

Indian and Chinese interests overlap in Afghanistan, especially in the mining industry, and there have also been instances of cooperation between Delhi and Moscow in Afghanistan. However as Joshi claims, “India is stuck in the mindset that no-one wants them in Afghanistan although in reality NATO would welcome an increased Indian presence.”

When asked to rate the overall performance of the UPA’s foreign policy legacy, Joshi’s reply was an unreserved sub-par performance, stating that the UPA has “fallen well short of its potential.”