• Abhivardhan

India's Shadow Diplomacy

Narendra Modi. Source: https://www.fairobserver.com/region/central_south_asia/narendra-modi-bjp-win-indian-election-news-south-asia-world-news-today-39084/ (Copyright: Kremlin)


Understanding the perspectives of diplomacy that India represents is connected with the influence of populism in the discourses of international law. As the 2019 Elections were won by Narendra Modi, the new Minister of External Affairs, Mr Subramanyam Jaishankar, has introduced a new form of diplomacy we shall call ‘Shadow Diplomacy’. This hidden approach of diplomatic expression as a progressive character of action seems to resemble India as an underdog in the international community. This is supported by economic reforms and has fuelled efforts to manipulate the ideological constraints that the P5 nations suffer at the United Nations. As the second phase of the ‘Modi Sarkar (government)’ begins, we see the rise of this use of India’s “Shadow Diplomacy”. The populist position of India fuelling such a tactic of diplomatic representation has seen a very early success in comparison to Pakistan’s Imran Khan’s politics of populism. In the decade of rising populism, when even the United States is led by a populist like Trump, India has represented its diplomatic side with a ‘pseudo-populist’ stance [1] of legitimacy. The article explores the potential of Shadow Diplomacy as a theory and practical persona of India in theory.

The Modi 2.0: A New Advent

Mr Modi had been condemning the political theory of Indian National Congress’s preceding governments when it comes to their approach of secular diplomacy, non-alignment, and did not agree to India's defensive position on the international stage. Yet he has undoubtedly proved himself as a victor in the Indian politics, and has gained legitimacy in the eyes of the Indian people. He has showed signs of populism and risen with his policy of being against the political elite of India and of the International Community. During his first prime-ministerial phase of 2014-19, there was an appreciation of the pro-liberal strategy adopted by the Indian National Congress and other predecessors, of which Modi showed to Sheikh Hassina, the PM of Bangladesh [2] and even to Nawas Sharif of Pakistan [3] for some years until the Pathankot attack in 2016. When Imran Khan was elected in 2018, the Pakistani PM, India changed its stance and we can identify the beginning of Shadow Diplomacy from then on. The 2019 Election paved a mandate to the incumbent prime minister despite economic slowdown, despite the fact that the GDP growth in August 2019 is down to 5%, (less than in the range of 6.8-7.5% in the previous FY, 2018) [4]. Now that the Ministry of External Affairs is now led by Mr Subramanyam Jaishankar, the former Foreign Secretary of the Modi Government of 2014-19, the world is seeing a development of India’s stance towards different issues, where we see the Indian side behaving like a cautious and opportunistic underdog.

To understand how India is an underdog, let us understand Shadow Diplomacy. Generally, International Law is shaped by state interests and relative morality towards the international organizations that such states address. By doing that, they keep their positive legal and political interests intact and retaining (also expanding) the scope of peremptory norms (jus cogens) involved. Peremptory norms are such legal norms in international law, which are widely agreed and binding on and among nation-states, where nation-states involve adherence to the legal norms as an international legal custom. Now, shadow diplomacy is not a generic or visible violation of peremptory norms under international law. Neither is it that peremptory (Not subject to appeal) norms are directly attributable to show as if there is some moral issues with that state which subjects to its own expression in diplomatic and administrative actions. In general, Shadow Diplomacy is considerably a tactic where a nation-state succeeds to curb an apparent violation of peremptory norms by acknowledging circumstances in a least diplomatically biased way. However, the issue which arises is that there is a moral violation of the norms and the arbitrariness of such violation is way tricky because diplomatic representation and stances dilute the moral compass and appearance to be consciously realized by the international community. Let us understand this by an example on the coverage by the Indian tabloid media of India’s stance at the UN on 16th August, 2019.

Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Permanent Representative at the UN is credited for his achievements and lobbying skills. With the Kashmir issue, he championed India’s stance. For example, in the case of China’s opposition to India’s P5 membership and that too towards recognizing Hafiz Saeed as a UNSC-enlisted terrorist, the Indian mainstream media created immature and biased narratives on the technicalities of the issue. They treated Indian diplomacy as they treat politics: a sport [5]. Mr Akbaruddin however acted irrespective of the boisterous imagery flaunted by the Indian tabloid media balances India’s muscular diplomacy in his own creative way, of whose the best example we could see when he addressed South Asian (especially Pakistani) journalists on 16 August 2019 at the UN Headquarters after the Security Council consultations. His diplomatic behaviour is very much immune from populist characterizations narrated by the mainstream media in their nation-states. Thus - Shadow Diplomacy is a juggling affair where opinions are streamlined or lineated, while the heads of states & their governments and the diplomatic missions maintain a revolving change in the political atmosphere of the world. When the Indian Media however terms Akbaruddin’s stance as muscular, dominating, sporty and romanticizes it [6], Akbaruddin’s humility credits India’s stance and apart from few nation-states, India remains invincible on Kashmir. Pakistan indeed fails at large. We can understand here that there exists a great deal of disparity in terms of the Indian media’s coverage over nationalizing India’s foreign policy, which happened in the case of Akbaruddin.

We must also understand that Shadow Diplomacy is a special idea: it is not common among liberals, and is not at the status to be a concept in the study of International Law and Relations. However, we can term it to be an innovative discourse in the world of diplomats.

The Influence of Populism: India’s Pro-Economic & Redemptive Stance

Today – even if we see a wave of populism in many countries, the Indian wave is different: it still follows that image of resembling a responsible and muscular diplomatic power in the world. That is one of the biggest reasons India successfully keeps a blockage to let the issue of Kashmir be widely emphasized by the international community. That is what Syed Akbaruddin, the Indian Ambassador to the UN in New York represented in his unplanned speech.

“[There] are normal diplomatic ways of dealing with countries. That is the way to do it. But using terror to try and push your goals is not the way that normal States behave. No democracy will acknowledge or accept talks, when terror thrives. Stop terror to start talks. [7]”

While Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistani counterpart to Mr Akbarrudin and Wu Haitao, the Chinese counterpart could not take questions and provide a reasonable ground to internationalize the Kashmir issue, India’s stance remained unaffected at the expense of keeping the P5 divided. Furthermore - the western powers felt no certainty over deciding anything that the informal close consultations over Kashmir could provide a purposive conclusion in the UN Security Council. In fact, after more than 55 years, there was a dire need for the UN Security Council to take some special action.

Although the UN has voiced the issue of Kashmir, it failed to solve the issue substantially because of the reasons that follow:

  1. The dilution or de-operationalization (and not abrogation) of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, 1950 was a constitutional trickery, with being somewhat of an innovative reinterpretation.

  2. The terms of the Simla Agreement (1972) [8] were kept intact – and India showed Pakistan that it is time that it preserves the bilateralism of the very agreement;

  3. The western world is busy with the US-China Trade war, cybersecurity issues, European populism and most importantly, Brexit, which has somehow made the West inconsistent towards approaching on Kashmir;

  4. India’s economic slowdown is not slow – but still, when key companies and various economically ambitious states from the Middle East are engaged with India, unlike in the recent case where Qatar condemned China for the treatment of Uighurs, India has a lot to win instead to lose;

India has changed a lot. Also - this is certainly not just about diplomacy or populism when it comes to India: it is about shaping representative and unspoken legitimacy. India has its own contours to champion it. There are fears about the future repercussions of diluting Article 370 of the Constitution of India, 1950, and about the rise of a confusing resemblance of advocating standoffs that the Modi 2.0 Government preserves.

Also - the American affair energized by Modi is surprisingly regressing because India is not ignoring the Russians, at least in the case of military and arms cooperation. It seems that even if Putin is a bad figure in the eyes of the US, India still keeps a balance, with its own creatively innovative or insane Third World approaches under Narendra Modi. Nevertheless - what is important is the stable perspective of what India represents - the Secular and centrist personality which resolves more and problematizes less. Let us see how this is preserved.

To conclude - Shadow Diplomacy is a diplomatic trickery, used by nation-states to cater difficult issues. Such a method is indeed innovative, and is like an imagery. This is also true that nation-states can use such methods while they really are at some diplomatic edge [9]. India has thus, since 2018 catered that approach to put forward its own agenda to the world, whether of international or national scope. While it is important to seek how the Indian Diplomacy under S Jaishankar and Akbaruddin has been impressive, it is important to note that their approach has hid India’s peremptory norms’ moral violation by addressing the crux of the legitimate concerns of the Kashmir issue by showcasing it to be an internal matter at the UN.


"India-Bangladesh Relations". Mea.Gov.In, 2017. https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Bangladesh_September_2017_en.pdf.

"Politics Over Narendra Modi-Nawaz Sharif ‘Friendship’, Both In India And Pakistan". Hindustan Times, 2019. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/congress-taunts-modi-over-friendship-with-sharif-bjp-responds-with-bail-jibe/story-uYwcBHaLtwvURstuCuLCHM.html.

"CNN Treats Politics Like Sports — And It’S Making Us All Dumber". Youtube, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pS4x8hXQ5c.

"कश्मीर पर पाक जितना नीचे गिरेगा, भारत का कद उतना बढ़ेगाः सैयद अकबरुद्दीन". Aajtak.Intoday.In, 2019. https://aajtak.intoday.in/story/uno-un-general-assembly-india-syed-akbaruddin-pakistan-prime-minister-imran-khan-1-1121322.html.

"10 तक: UNSC में पाक को भारत की खरी-खरी, पहले आतंकवाद पर लगाओ लगाम". Aajtak.Intoday.In, 2019. https://aajtak.intoday.in/karyakram/video/10-tak-indian-representative-syed-akbaruddin-at-un-security-council-over-kashmir-issue-1-1111290.html.

Pminewyork.Gov.In, 2019. https://www.pminewyork.gov.in/pdf/uploadpdf/statements__1501005874.pdf.

[1] India has the influence of populism in terms of its internal policies, but in terms of foreign policy, it shows no essence of it and resemble some demanding elements of internal politics only into it.

[2] Mea.Gov.In, 2019, https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Bangladesh_September_2017_en.pdf.

[3] "Politics Over Narendra Modi-Nawaz Sharif ‘Friendship’, Both In India And Pakistan", Hindustan Times, 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/congress-taunts-modi-over-friendship-with-sharif-bjp-responds-with-bail-jibe/story-uYwcBHaLtwvURstuCuLCHM.html.

[4] It is recommended to read the report on economic analysis of India and the issues regarding the statistical analysis of India’s GDP, which is written by Dr Arvind Subramanyam at Harvard University.

[5] See CNN treats politics like sports — and it’s making us all dumber (2019) [Internet]. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pS4x8hXQ5c [Accessed 11th October 2019].

The Indian tabloid media create a cult of distrust and making political legitimation of the public opinion so linear. People think less rational and get subjective. Politics however itself circambulates, which the media does not portray.

[6] See कश्मीर पर पाक जितना नीचे गिरेगा, भारत का कद उतना बढ़ेगाः सैयद अकबरुद्दीन (2019). Available at: https://aajtak.intoday.in/story/uno-un-general-assembly-india-syed-akbaruddin-pakistan-prime-minister-imran-khan-1-1121322.html (Accessed: 26 October 2019); 'Watch: Syed Akbaruddin Calmly Shuts Down Pakistani Journalists, Video Goes Viral' (Zee News, 2019) <https://zeenews.india.com/india/watch-syed-akbaruddin-calmly-shuts-down-pakistani-journalists-video-goes-viral-2227913.html> accessed 26 October 2019; '10 तक: UNSC में पाक को भारत की खरी-खरी, पहले आतंकवाद पर लगाओ लगाम' (aajtak.intoday.in, 2019) <https://aajtak.intoday.in/karyakram/video/10-tak-indian-representative-syed-akbaruddin-at-un-security-council-over-kashmir-issue-1-1111290.html> accessed 26 October 2019.

[7] "Press Briefing By Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, Permanent Representative Of India To The United Nations", Permanent Mission Of India To The United Nations, 2019, https://www.pminewyork.gov.in/pdf/uploadpdf/statements__1501005874.pdf.

[8] The Simla Accords of 1972 signed between India and Pakistan signify that Pakistan would not interfere beyond the Line of Control in the India-Occupied Kashmir anyways, and both the nations would maintain the accord intact to ensure peace and stability in the region. In the speech of 16 August 2019, when Akbaruddin expressed about the Accords, what he meant to imply was that the Accords are bilateral in nature, and the de-operationalization of Article 370 is (1) an internal affair and (2) has nothing to do with the Accord, with the sign that even if India regards the situation of Kashmir delicate (which India does), they would not appreciate and accept any unreasonable woe to transcend the Kashmir issue internationalized, because India thinks it is important for Pakistan to “stop terror and start talks”. Basically, this was a statement to express some trigger against Pakistan, with the move of diluting Art. 370 being disruptive by nature.

[9] Although it is not complete to disambiguate India’s Shadow Diplomacy, but such an approach involves an active and invokable stance that diplomats need to give, for which Syed Akbaruddin is known for. What we can expect today is that Subramanyam Jaishankar will continue to pose Narendra Modi as a profile of redemption and reform, and that would be unstoppable until there is some tremor to populism in the Middle East, Europe and North America. While the populist diplomats of India can use notions of defeatism and redemption, it is now an ethical onus on the West to fix their moral compass first to cooperate and make the world objectively globalized again.