Indian Foreign Policy and Civil Society Experts: MEA must go past the Conference Model

Harsh V. Pant, Ambuj Sahu

Foreign policy starts getting shaped by public opinion only when a democracy develops and matures. Such a political evolution sows the seeds for the democratization of foreign policy, where citizens actively participate in decision-making on international issues, with diplomatic concerns moving “from the calculations of the few to the passions of the many.”

It is no wonder external affairs minister S Jaishankar used the phrase “people-centric foreign policy” at an event in June 2022. It is even more significant now as this is India’s G20 presidency year. Further, Jan Bhagidari or people’s participation is critical as India takes the G20 to the masses. As the aspirations of ordinary Indians become global, the nation’s foreign policy establishment has been responding to that impulse by ushering in changes in the conduct of foreign policy.

India’s foreign policy, too, has traditionally been a turf of political and intellectual elites, but the year of the G20 presidency is the right time to take serious steps toward democratizing the discourse around it. Some serious questions, though, need to be answered first: How should government institutions account for people’s input in foreign policy? More importantly, how to prepare the people for constructive participation in issues of strategic importance?

As the aspirations of ordinary Indians become global, the nation’s foreign policy establishment has been responding to that impulse by ushering in changes in the conduct of foreign policy.

The MEA leg that must lead

The latest report of the Standing Committee on External Affairs on demand for grants, released on 21 March 2023, provides an entry point for answering these questions. Published after the Union Budget was presented in February, the report discusses the finances and priorities of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) regarding its international projects and public outreach. It devotes an entire chapter to foreign policy research and planning, a task taken under the aegis of the Policy Planning & Research (PP&R) division in the MEA.

The division is the nodal agency for policy planning and public diplomacy initiative with the strategic and academic community. Its primary objective is to induct expertise from outside the government apparatus while career bureaucrats run the ministry. With its mandate of engaging with civil society, the PP&R should lead when it comes to democratizing Indian foreign policy. The division has taken a number of steps in the last few years to reconfigure its functioning like bringing in consultants and external researchers as well as creating world-class convening platforms, thereby amplifying India’s voice on the global stage.

However, much of PP&R’s engagement with civil society remains limited to event-oriented modes like conferences, seminars, and Track 1.5 dialogues. On the research front, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra in his testimony suggests, “PP&R interacts, interfaces, collects, collates information and the prescription that the think tank community may have…we rely on publicly available academic literature relating to that policy which we can do.” His remarks suggest a perceptible lack of interest in supporting and generating original research while limiting knowledge accumulation to the available literature.

The division has taken a number of steps in the last few years to reconfigure its functioning like bringing in consultants and external researchers as well as creating world-class convening platforms, thereby amplifying India’s voice on the global stage.

These sentiments are also echoed in the Parliamentary Committee’s feedback, which suggested that “not much stress has been laid on research in the country” and the PP&R must take the lead in developing a research culture. It recommended the creation of a budget head to dedicate more funds for research in universities. Further, the MEA was also advised to bring India-specific narratives into academia and broaden the base of scholars on foreign policy.

Not a one-way street

There is a fundamental problem in the extant approach. The PP&R is operating on the foundation that conference-based interaction will capture the expertise in civil society and augment the capacity of an already understaffed bureaucracy. However, this notion needs to be revised for two primary reasons.

First, good policy research is not a one-way street from civil society to the government. High-entry barriers in India’s foreign policy apparatus worsen the ivory tower syndrome, something that practitioners themselves accuse academics and think tanks of. Due to this gatekeeping, academics are bereft of adequate knowledge of India-specific challenges, lack real-world understanding of the government’s constraints, and spend their intellectual bandwidth on policy-irrelevant agendas. While there has been an influx of consultants and researchers into the MEA in the last few years, their utilization remains far from optimal.

Second, PP&R cannot assume that the expertise is out there only to be fetched using engagement mechanisms. It needs to be cultivated on a nationwide scale. The Indian story in the international arena is yet to catch up with the masses, and so is the popularity of the discipline of international relations (IR) among them. That is why, today, IR studies are either a luxury for the nation’s elites or a financial liability for students residing in the hinterland. On top of this, IR scholarship in India remains history-heavy. It lacks scientific rigor, which fuels an inherent academic bias for postcolonial and critical studies; most policy analyses remain descriptive and data-less and lack methodological training.

What the MEA can do

Of course, the problem is much broader, involving institutions of higher learning, and the MEA cannot, on its own, make a significant dent. Enhancing the quality of IR education in India is not the primary responsibility of the MEA. However, the PP&R can play its part in generating sound IR research for civil society, mobilizing scholars and analysts, exposing them to the intricacies of policymaking on a short-term basis, and thus further democratizing foreign policy.

The PP&R should emphasise ‘knowledge creation’ rather than ‘knowledge exchange’ in its outreach, so that researchers duly account for Indian positions on international issues.

To begin with, the MEA can demarcate the funds for convenings and research projects separately. Once funds are dedicated solely to research, budgetary accountability will ensure quality research from the organizations. The PP&R can float tenders for their research projects where think tanks and universities can compete. It will also save funds for PP&R. Next could be the MEA increasing the contractual positions and fellowships for engaging civil society experts at various levels. Similarly, it should contemplate devising research fellowships in Indian embassies and consulates worldwide to promote expertise in area studies research and provide a platform for fieldwork to young scholars.

Finally, the PP&R should emphasize ‘knowledge creation’ rather than ‘knowledge exchange’ in its outreach, so that researchers duly account for Indian positions on international issues. Most of these initiatives would require a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.

As India’s democracy matures and its international profile rises, foreign policy will come into ever greater democratic scrutiny and shape public opinion and voting preferences. PP&R can be a driver to spread public awareness and cultivate expertise on foreign policy. In recent years, India has positioned its foreign policy to be “for the people”, but it needs to go further to ensure a foreign policy “of the people” and, most importantly, “by the people”.

The article was first published on ORF as Indian foreign policy needs civil society experts. MEA must step up, go beyond the conference model on April 11, 2023.

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