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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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"India's Look East - A Review and the Way Ahead" 

Lecture at USI on 20th January 2003

Mr. Chairman, Worthy friends,

It is not for the first time that I am visiting this august institution  to address such a distinguished group of men who at some stage in their life wore with distinction the military uniform to defend the cause and institutions of the Republic.  It is also a matter of great satisfaction  that many amongst you have made intellectual contributions in shaping the security policies of the Nation.  The USI, with its long history, is now an important Think Tank of the country.    

Mr. Chairman,

          You have asked me to share with you how I view what is called ‘Look East’ policy in context of the contemporary challenges. 

          ‘Looking East’ became the metaphor of Indian foreign policy after then Prime Minister, Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao articulated this concept during the course of a policy speech delivered in Singapore in 1992.  The term has caught on since then and encapsulates today the broad process of India’s re-engagement with its Asian neighbourhood that had been ignored during the colonial era. 

          As you know the ‘Look East’ was not, however, a new concept for it had been articulated in thought and practice by that great visionary of India’s foreign policy, Jawaharlal Nehru.  Indeed, Nehru had convened the first path-breaking “Asian Relations Conference” in New Delhi in 1946, before India had even gained her Independence.  This was followed in short order by another major Asia conference, again in New Delhi, to discuss the question of Indonesia and its liberation from Dutch colonial rule. 

       For Panditji, India and Asia were so inter-twined that he sometimes used the two terms interchangeably.  India and Asia were both repositories of ancient civilisational values with a rich and glorious history, and both were re-discovering their freedom from colonial rule at the same time.  The renaissance of both was inter-linked.  No doubt, Pandit Nehru’s vision was tinged with a certain degree of idealism but he was a realist enough to see how India was strategically located at the centre of the Asian system.  In a speech before the Indian parliament in 1949, Panditji observed, and I quote, 

          “One of the major question of the day is the readjustment of the relations of Asia and the West.  When we talk of Asia, remember that India, not because of any ambition of hers, but because of the force of circumstances, because of geography, because of history, and because of so many other things – inevitably has to play a very important part in Asia.  And not only that, India becomes a kind of meeting ground of various trends and forces and a meeting ground between what might roughly be called the East and West”. 

He further asked the Members of Parliament, (I quote) 

“Look at the map.  If you have to consider ay question affecting the Middle East, India comes into the picture inevitably, if you have to consider any question concerning South East Asia, you cannot do so without India.  So also about the Far East.  So while the Middle East may not be directly connected with South East Asia, both are connected with India.  So, even if you think in terms of regional organisations in Asia, you may have to keep in touch with the other regions.  And whatever regions you may have in mind, India’s important part cannot be ignored.  So India plays a very important role in Asia.” (Unquote) 

          Indeed, the vast continent of Asia has always been part of India historical consciousness in which India has played a central role in the development of Asian Art, culture, religion and philosophy.  Indeed, Asia is more than half the world.  It is the largest and most populous continent accounting for nearly 60% of the global population.  Eight of the ten most populous countries are in Asia.  Several of the great ancient civilizations originated in the continent.  Almost all the world’s religions – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism, etc – originated and continue to thrive in Asia. 

          The cold war and its shadow over Asia militated against the full integration of Asia in India’s strategic vision until the early 90s.  We were thus late to the Asian renaissance and the dramatic transformation that Asia has attained over past decades.  Today, analysts agree that the 21st century will witness the rapid progress of Asia and its development as the economic power house of the entire world.  It has been said in this context that Asia is poised to become the new strategic centre of gravity in international politics.  With this historically momentous shift, for the first time since the modern era began with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the single largest concentration of international economic power will be found not in Europe – not in the Americas – but in Asia.  This will mark the return of Asia to centre stage in the international system after almost five hundred years on the margins. 

          India’s strategic situation in Asia was exploited fully by the British, most notably during the Second World War.  The Allied powers used India as their main logistical base and operational headquarters, as well as their source for military supplies and manpower during this war.  Their India bastion enabled the Allies to secure the vital oil and energy supplies of the Gulf States, Iraq and Iran while on the eastern sector it enabled them to develop a challenge to the Japanese army on the boundaries of India.  The battle of Kohima where the Indian Army defeated the Japanese, marked the latter’s first serious defeat in the war.  Indeed some historian have said that the Kohima battle was the first time in 2,600 years that the Japanese army had been so decisively defeated in battle. 

Worthy Friends,

          I recall in this connection an episode while serving as India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 70s, I was asked by the Government here to enquire about the possibilities of India securing two nuclear submarines from the Soviet Union.  I met  Admiral Gorshkov who as you know was an outstanding naval strategist of the time. My personal relations with him were somewhat informal. Rather than posing the question directly I asked him whether in his opinion India should have nuclear submarines.  Gorshkov responded that this depended on whether India wished to have a purely defensive or operational naval capability.  I told him that not being a military expert, I could not comment on this, so I sought his opinion as to what India’s naval posture should be.  His response was interesting.  He told me that the Chinese navy by then had acquired ten submarines and had the capability to add two to three every year.  He believed that such a powerful armada was not required for intervention in Taiwan Straits nor the Chinese had any strategic designs to move towards New Zealand or Australia.  Of course they would like to disrupt the Soviet Union’s naval traffic to and from its Far East part. Gorshkov believed that an important purpose of building such an impressive  armada was to probe the Andaman sea and beyond.  Gorshkov wanted me to appreciate that India’s security parameters stretched from the Straits of Malaca in the south-east, to the Persian Gulf and down to the Cape of Good Hope in the south-west.  India, he felt,  should have the capability of defending this vastly spread perimeter that would make acquisition of  nuclear submarines a valid requirement. 

Mr. Chairman and distinguished friends, 

          Asia is the wide canvas within which India’s interests must be framed.  And to defend our interests over this vast area would require a broad based response, integrating our military, naval and air capabilities while combining power projection with the most effective use of our diplomatic resources. 

          The SAARC region is evidently the first perimeter of India’s defenses.  It would be futile to project our interests further afield if we are unable to do so in our immediate neighbourhood where our concerns are more direct, proximate and tangible.  Furthermore, the manner in which we conduct our SAARC diplomacy would also influence the manner in which more removed  nations view us.  India does not have, as China does, substantial resources to invest in projecting its presence abroad.  The attraction of India lies in the fact that it is a model democratic society with a creative cultural and intellectual tradition.  These features combined with our historical record of benign and peaceful engagement with the outside world makes us attractive to the countries of the ASEAN region.  It is this goodwill and high reputation that we must maintain in all our dealings, whether with SAARC nations or any others for these are our best credentials. 

          Finally, whether we like it or not, the fact is that the SAARC region is an integrate entity and cannot be compartmentalized and partitioned along political fault lines. Economic turmoil or political instability in any SAARC country  inevitability have spillover effects in our territory since India is the only nation that borders all other SAARC members. The influx of refugees from Bangladesh and the overflow of terrorist activity from Sri Lanka or the terrorist activity in the bordering areas of Nepal should provide sufficient evidence of this reality. 

India has therefore very vital interest in preserving the SAARC process. There is no doubt that SAARC has thus far fallen short of our expectations. Only 3.5% of total SAARC trade is conducted between SAARC members whereas this figure stands at 70% in other regions such as the European Union.  No significant cross border infrastructure project or investment has taken place in spite of the huge potential for the same. 

Mr. Chairman,

          It is true there is no single reason for the failure of SAARC and all nations to some degree must be held accountable.  Nevertheless, we must realize that India is the central figure in SAARC both geographically and in terms of our overall predominance and population.  Incidentally  we have to  shoulder a heavier burden of responsibility. 

          In the development of SAARC framework there is much we can learn from the ASEAN countries.  I recall a 1995 Track-II Seminar in Rawalpindi when Mr. Ghazali Shafi, a leading public figure of Malaysia, spoke of ASEAN’s cohesion compared to SAARC’s disarray.  He gave three principal reasons for this.  Firstly, he said that ASEAN countries even while differing in private agreed in public.  The SAARC tendency unfortunately was the opposite.  Secondly, he said that ASEAN nations do not let the ups and downs of bilateral relations amongst the member countries influence their regional cooperation.   Thirdly, Mr. Shafi said that ASEAN nations are willing to overcome and forget past differences for building a new future.  Thus, despite the fact that Indo-China was the scene of longest cold war confrontation, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were readily admitted into the ASEAN family once the shadow of cold war had passed. 

          The ASEAN countries have a flexible, pragmatic and forward-looking tendency while we in SAARC seem to be held hostage by various rigidities and inflexibilities.  For us in India this is manifest in an undue obsession with Pakistan.  There is no doubt that the Military rulers of Pakistan have been guilty of deceit, violence and worse in their dealings with us. This is true but we should also recognize Pakistani society is not monolithic, and while the Armed forces of Pakistan and certain other militant sections may harbour a deep-rooted animosity towards us, there is also a growing tendency amongst liberal circles and civil society in Pakistan, urging it to shed its primitive militant ideologies and build a more democratic society based on some degree of reconciliation with India. To quote an example, in a recent article in the Daily Times of Lahore, Naeem Sadiq observes, and I quote,         

“It is ironic that Pakistan spends all its energies trying to liberate others, while it has failed to liberate its own self from the repeated invasions of its own army. An Army that today owns Pakistan, instead of Pakistan owning an Army.” 

          He was bold enough to suggest, 

          “Pakistan needs to undertake a fair amount of re-engineering, if it wishes to change the course of history for itself. The initiative must come from the Army. The military must voluntarily step aside. The Majors and Colonels of the intelligence agencies must stop determining the “supreme national interests of Pakistan.”  The author proceeds to courageously advise,


           “Our desire to rule Kashmir must be completely set aside. The best we can do is to leave Kashmir to the Kashmiris. Countries that cannot govern their existing boundaries should have little reason to look for more territory.” 

Mr. Chairman,

          This is one example and there are several others,  of the new tendency amongst liberal and intellectual circles to criticize the growing anarchy in the Pakistani system. In the western media, of course, Pakistan’s image is far worse.  It is in this context that a worried Gen. Musharraf only yesterday told the  businessmen and industrialists of his country that he was  apprehending Pakistan becoming a target of war  after the Iraq crisis and he wanted that an all out effort should be made to avoid such a situation.  Sooner or later Pakistan will have to undergo  basic changes in its socio-political ethos. The main point I am making here is that in terms of state ideology and culture, Pakistan has failed. India, on the other hand, has been a success.  In these circumstances I fail to see why we should impose strict visa restrictions on Pakistani visitors. Journalists, intellectual and other thinking people should, I feel, be encouraged to visit India to see for themselves the progress in our economy and vitality of our socio-cultural milieu. Such visits would inevitably reinforce modernist forces in Pakistan. During my nearly five years stay in Moscow, I saw for myself   that the Soviet system was undermined not so much  by U.S. missiles or weapons but more by its democratic culture which was relentlessly projected through a variety of media channels into the closed heartland of the Soviet Union.

           Likewise, there was no need for our Foreign Minister to  publicly hurl accusations against the Bangladesh government for sheltering extremist elements at a time when the former Prime Minister  Sheikh Hasina was in India. The facts narrated by the Foreign Minister may be true but hysterical outbursts do not manifest our  strength. An alienated Bangladesh may choose  to ape Myanmar and move in that direction.  Viewed in this context the SAARC provides a bulwark to our security and contributes to our economic strength.  Our indifference to the regional cooperation can be perilous.  I am conscious that terrorism is haunting us  and most of neighbouring countries.  It is desperately trying to establish its foothold in Bangladesh, Bhutan and in our Eastern States.   Quiet diplomacy and a helping hand  is need of the hour.

 Learned friends,

          While we are pre occupied in our region, China is moving rapidly to build up its presence in key countries of Asia. They have committed themselves to a free trade agreement with ASEAN by the year 2010 and many ASEAN countries are looking to the Chinese economy for new impulses to growth. China has also pledged assistance for the proposed Singapore-Kunming rail link project, a 5,500 kms. long rail track costing US$ 2.5 billion, which will run through the main continental, ASEAN states to China.   It is also building an additional rail link with oil rich Kazakstan and providing naval outlet to this land locked country. 

          As I have said, China’s cultivation of strategically situated Myanmar has been especially vigorous. Myanmar’s military ruler, Senior General Than Shwa visited China earlier this month where he signed several pacts to enhance economic cooperation including a US$ 200 million preferential loan package from China to Myanmar. Apart from sustained supply of arms, China is also building its  highways, telephone exchanges, and fertilizer plants. It has acquired facilities to use the Irrawady water way that takes it directly to the Bay of Bengal. Last year witnessed the completion of the first phase to the Myanmar’s Thilawa Shipyard Project which is China’s show-piece project in Myanmar. 

          Apart from Myanmar, China’s economic presence is also felt  in other poorer ASEAN states, like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It is this growing influence in our strategic hinterland that we must be cognizant of and prepared to counter. 

Mr. Chairman, distinguished friends, 

          The deadly shadow of war is hanging over the world generally and West Asia more specifically.   It is no secret that the Anglo-American agenda is intent on securing a regime change in Iraq, by whatever means possible. This would be an unacceptable intervention in the sovereignty of the Iraqi people who alone have the right to decide the form and system of their Govt. It seems that the ultimate goal of the mighty powers is to gain control over the oil wealth of that country, and dictate the flow of oil in world markets. This has for long been the underlying objective of American diplomacy in oil rich West Asia. I recall my talks with the US Secretary of State during the Iraq-Kuwait crisis of 1990-91. He minced no words when he told me, ‘‘Mr. Minister, oil is our civilization, and we will never permit any demon to sit over it.’’ We may recall the Iranian Prime Minister,  Mossadegh’s fate who paid a heavy price for no other crime than  nationalization of Iran’s own oil. What followed was the surge of ultra nationalistic cum religious regimes. I apprehend the emergence of a similar intifada in the post Saddam era should this come to pass. 

Mr. Chairman,

          President, Mohammad Khatami of Iran will be a welcome guest on our Republic Day.  This visit will bring us closer to an important Asian neighbour.  During my tenures we had worked out a shared approach towards the Talibani regime in Afghanistan and for rendering support to the Northern Alliance.  We were then witnessing the rising surge of terrorism that aimed at destabilizing both the Iranian and the Indian civil societies.


As the historians amongst you would know in 1990, I had put my signatures on a trilateral treaty with Iran and Turkmenistan to provide an alternative sea-cum-rail route to Central Asia bye-passing the strife ridden Afghanistan.  It would be of interest to note that Russia has recently signed a Letter of Intent with Tehran and Pakistan to build an overland  gas pipeline with India as its destination.  The prevailing situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan may not be helpful but  I am hopeful that soon we see its end.


Mr. Chairman, worthy friends,

          With your permission, may I conclude on a somewhat personal note? As Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister of India it was my privilege to steer the course of Indian foreign policy during some critical years. The basic parameters of Indian foreign policy are set in consensus and tradition and the job of the Foreign Minister was really to understand the fundamentals and attune them to the changing currents of time.

 The ‘Gujral Doctrine’ that it came to be called, was a simple good neighbour policy. The novelty lay in one small but crucial clause which said that India would go more than half the way in meeting the concerns of its neighbours. We would not stand on mechanical notions of reciprocity to implement initiatives for the common benefit of our partners in the region. This policy was instrumental in building mutual trust, confidence and cooperation amongst our neighbours and creating an environment conducive to the progress of the subcontinent as a whole. The philosophy behind this doctrine was that a larger nation has the greater stake in the welfare of its region, and has more to lose should things go wrong. 

 Mr. Chairman,

As I have said, Asia today is rife with anxieties, deprivations and insecurities. Some new threats to peace and well-being seem to emerge every day.  In today’s uncertain world, the approach I suggested would seem to have a larger relevance. For unless the world’s larger and more affluent countries see their interest in the welfare of their smaller partners, peace and security in Asia will continue to be in jeopardy.  Let me hope and pray that the Sun of Hope will rise soon. 

          Thank you very much.

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Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles