Helping the world understand India's foreign policy

Our fellow citizens are much concerned today with domestic issues, but a small segment of citizenry spends its waking hours thinking largely about India's role in international affairs. Government officials apart, such people are mostly in the non-governmental domain.

Academics, defence experts, media commentators, former diplomats and business leaders constitute what is known as the 'strategic community.' This group has been gaining salience, a sign that foreign policy intellectuals have come of age. Corresponding to the diversification in India's external relations, activities of its think tanks have been expanding. This was not always so.

Before independence, knowledge and interest in foreign affairs were highly limited. As the Second World War raged, a team of visionary intellectuals led by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru took a historic initiative. In 1943, they created a pioneering institution devoted to the study, research and dissemination of knowledge on foreign affairs. Aptly named as the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), it has since contributed immensely to a specialized field.

ICWA received inspiration from Jawaharlal Nehru who believed that scholars should help in the making of foreign policy. 'The government alone', he said, "could not discharge its international obligations unless well-informed public opinion supported it or criticized it, whenever necessary." He made a personal donation for construction of a home for ICWA, Sapru House.

As independence approached, India hosted the Asian Relations Conference in 1947. ICWA accomplished the task admirably. The conference was presided over by Sarojini Naidu, a prominent leader of freedom struggle; Mahatma Gandhi addressed it. Another historic conference was organised in 1949 to advocate Indonesia's independence. Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa acknowledged India's valuable role in his recent address at Sapru House.

Like nations and individuals, institutions experience a cycle of rise and decline. After its golden era till mid-1980s, ICWA traversed through a dark period. This ended after firm action by the government and two acts by parliament, which recognized it as "an institution of national importance."

It has since been on a rising trajectory. It has been engaged in diverse activities, with the aim "to promote the study of Indian and international affairs to develop a body of informed opinion on international matters" and "to promote India's relations with other countries through study, research, discussions, lectures, exchange of ideas and information with other organizations within and outside India engaged in similar activities."

ICWA's governing council is composed of members of parliament, academics, media personalities, public figures, business leaders and a few officials. M. Hamid Ansari, India's vice president, is ex-officio president of ICWA. A veteran and distinguished diplomat, he has taken keen interest and guides the institution in fulfilling its mandate.

ICWA regularly produces analyses and assessments on various facets of India's foreign policy. Its products are released through its informative and user-friendly website. The institution has published 28 books, and more are in the pipeline. A major activity is to organize seminars and conferences involving scholars from universities across India, other think tanks and diplomats.

A new initiative is the launch of 'Sapru House Lecture Series.' Recently Dr. C. Raja Mohan, the distinguished expert on strategic affairs, delivered the first lecture on 'India and the Great Powers: Managing Strategic Triangles' before a packed hall. Both established and young scholars are drawn to it.

The institution manages its dialogue and cooperative relationship with a large network of think tanks, located in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. It has hosted eminent political leaders and foreign affairs experts. Its prestigious journal India Quarterly is a publication that has appeared without interruption for past six decades. The rich library continues to be a major asset.

ICWA pays focused attention to India's relations with several key regions. Given Asia's importance in Indian foreign policy, the institution began a yearly Asian Relations Conference in 2009. This series has facilitated in-depth examination of India's relations with China, South Asia and Central Asia. A flagship project is Delhi Dialogue, focusing on India's multi-dimensional ties with ASEAN countries.

Reflecting the expanding world view of India, ICWA took lead in mid-2012 to augment relations with Latin America by convening a 'National Consultations' conference on the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region. This was followed up by an interaction of Indian scholars and diplomats with a CELAC Troika delegation led by the Chilean foreign mnister.

An effective programme promotes relations with Africa. With diversification and deepening of India-Africa relationship, ICWA has been executing a comprehensive project of academic dialogue with various regions of Africa. Besides, substantive energy is invested in arranging outreach activities that aim to facilitate dialogue with scholars in Indian universities. A unique event was the recent National Outreach Conference on Global Nuclear Disarmament, which was attended by over 1300 participants.

Evidently India has an international destiny, an evolving worldview, and an expanding role to play on the global stage. A whole range of think tanks and other institutions are engaged in assisting it in this national project. ICWA is in the forefront of such endeavours, deeply conscious of its unique pedigree and dedicated to creating synergy with other stakeholders. Its mission is to help the world understand India's foreign policy, and help India comprehend the transforming international environment.

(The author is Director General of Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and a former Indian ambassador to several countries. The article reflects his personal views.)

Rajiv Bhatia

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