India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is the definition of a rebel. He rarely follows the pack, prefers to stand his ground than give in, and, when confronted on sensitive issues, often likes to respond with a healthy dose of passive aggression. But where Jaishankar diverges from the conventional agitator is that every one of his philosophies is calculated and intentional. In his 2020 book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, he highlights the most pivotal one: that India no longer needs to conform to norms established by other countries. Colloquially referred to as the “Jaishankar Doctrine,” this set of 21st-century foreign policy principles is enabling India to project its influence in a way it has never done so before.
In essence, the Jaishankar Doctrine is the idea that India, as an independent and rising power, will now adopt a pragmatic rather than ideological attitude toward international relations. As such, it will stand alone on the world stage, neither allying with the West nor with China, and will no longer subscribe to a binary conception of polarity in global order. Moreover, it will adopt an interests-first approach rather than one predicated on values. In many ways it resembles a 21st-century version of Bismarck’s realpolitik, aiming to pragmatically manipulate global conditions to India’s benefit. To many observers, the ideology appears to be naive pandering to Modi’s nationalist base, but the global response to India’s actions indicates that the EAM’s words are carving a new place for India in the world.
A Lifetime in the Making
In a Modi Government that has gradually dipped its toes in authoritarian waters, Jaishankar’s departure from Western, value-based alignment is likely both correlated with and encouraged by the BJP’s uniquely firm domestic grip. The first crystalline example of Modi’s authority came during the massive farmer protests of early 2021, as the BJP shut down the internet in New Delhi, charged journalists with sedition, and beat protestors in the street. Since then, Modi’s government has continued its infringement on democratic liberties, most recently arresting Mohammad Zubair and Teesta Setalvad, long-time critics of Modi and his Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, for a combination of “objectionable tweets” and criminal conspiracy dating back to 2002. According to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, they were actually arrested for “trying to expose the truth.” In this climate of rampant nationalism and limited constraints, Jaishankar has the green light to steer India’s global ascent.
From a young age, Jaishankar was always surrounded by issues of Indian national interest because of the work of his father, Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam. Subrahmanyam, a career public official and intellectual, served twice as secretary of the Ministry of Defense before twice directing India’s foremost defense think tank, the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA). According to prominent Indian national security expert Bharat Karnad, “the nation at-large seemed to care little and understand even less about grand strategy” until Subrahmanyam arrived on the scene. He was even widely referred to as “India’s Kissinger.”
In retrospect, it is clear that Subrahmanyam’s ideologies rubbed off on his son. Throughout his career, Subrahmanyam conducted himself as a “pragmatic realist,” always prioritizing the Indian national interest. This pragmatism was most notable in his staunch advocacy for the expansion of India’s nuclear program, especially in the wake of China’s successful inaugural weapons test in 1964. Half a century later, Subrahmanyam’s vision radiates through the actions of his kin.
Walking the Walk
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many expected, given its historic value-driven alignment with the West, for India to sanction Russia and reduce its oil imports. Instead, Modi’s government refused to condemn the invasion officially and, taking advantage of the global demand reduction for Russian oil, increased imports 50-fold. Still, Modi has swayed towards the Western-aligned deescalatory stance over the war’s duration, recently telling Putin that “now is not the time for war.” Regardless, Putin still regularly tries to appease India as one of its only potential allies. As such, while castigating the West for its history of imperialism in a speech on September 30, the autocrat specifically invoked the memory of the Western “plunder of India.” Evidently, Jaishankar’s policy towards Russia does not strongly fall into one camp or another, but is nevertheless uniquely positioned to take advantage of ever-changing global conditions.
In fact, Jaishankar has historically been very open about the Modi Government’s unapologetic opportunism. In his book, he articulates that a crucial pillar of the new Indian grand strategy is “advancing [its] national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions.” Such seemingly threatening posturing would typically cause both allies and enemies alike to raise their guards, but global leaders have seemingly acknowledged the legitimacy of Jaishankar’s philosophy.
Particularly in the West, leaders have generally accepted his scathing critiques of Western hypocrisy. According to Jaishankar, the “two centuries of national humiliation” that the West inflicted upon India and the US$45 trillion in value extracted from the subcontinent are justifications enough for India’s refusal to side with the West. By and large, this stance has gone unquestioned, as has Jaishankar’s subtle resistance to recent Western initiatives regarding Russia. In his recent meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Antony Blinken, Jaishankar, when asked about India joining the potentially US-led price-cap initiative for Russian gas, largely deflected the question.
Looking East, India has adopted a similar stance to China. Historically, this relationship has been much more frayed. Beginning in 1962 with the Sino-Indian War and continuing until the present day, the two nations have clashed repeatedly over disputed border regions. Moreover, their opposing sides during the Cold War years further frayed relations and hindered ideological alignment. Nevertheless, China’s developmental success over the last four decades and associated rise as its own pole of influence have not dissuaded Jaishankar from applying resistance to both it and its favored bipolar order. As of late, the Modi government has begun to use its influence in pursuit of its strategic goals. Like many Western nations, it has prevented Huawei’s inclusion in 5G network trials and has also denied roughly US$1.63 billion in Chinese investments from entering the country. Partially, these decisions represent India’s present concern with its US$72.9 billion trade deficit with China, but they also represent a heightened assertiveness in the international sphere. Importantly, these actions come at a time when India is likely to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. According to PWC, India’s domestic situation makes it likely to be the world’s second-largest economy by 2050, only behind China.
Ultimately, it is possible that much of India’s recent geostrategic ambiguity is enabled by the global turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine. As the conflict restricts American options, as indicated by its recent lack of coercive success with Saudi Arabia over cuts to oil production, Jaishankar’s aims are proving feasible but still not entirely effective. Regarding the recent US approval of a potential US$450 million F-16 sale to India’s arch-rival Pakistan, Jaishankar insinuated American deceit by saying that Washington is “not fooling anybody” when it says the aircraft are only for counterterrorism purposes. Only a day later, the US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price clarified to Jaishankar that the United States does not view its relations with India and Pakistan in the context of each other.
As global conditions evolve, India’s actions may not remain acceptable to the United States in the long term either. According to Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu, even India’s domestic actions have the potential to hinder bilateral cooperation with the United States. For many decades, the United States and India have enjoyed a cordial relationship due to a joint emphasis on democratic values. As such, Jaishankar choosing to prioritize Indian national interest in Indian foreign policy will not cause the United States to turn a blind eye toward the Modi Government’s recent authoritarian diversion.
Nevertheless, all estimates, both demographic and economic, point to Indian global influence increasing within only a few decades. Dr. Jaishankar’s philosophy, however, asserts that the nation is ready to stand alone now. Divergent yet resolute, his push for hegemonic consideration takes pages from foundational diplomatic history to write the Indian story of tomorrow. If Jaishankar succeeds, it will be one of a new world order that finally accounts for India’s weight.