Foreign Policy Gets Thumbs Up from Urban Youth

The survey conducted by think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with Impetus Research provides interesting public opinion insights on India’s foreign policy, especially among the youths. It also provides glimpse of the diverging trends emerging from predominant opinion among the community of Indian foreign-policy strategists and experts..

Foreign Affairs

By Sri Krishna

Even as the South Asian region appears headed for a period of uncertainty in the wake of the Taliban seizing power in neighbouring Afghanistan where India has made huge investments, a survey of the urban youth found enthusiastic support from them on the conduct of Indian foreign policy.

The survey conducted by think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in collaboration with Impetus Research found that as many as 72 percent of respondents had a positive assessment of the performance (32 percent very good, and 40 percent, good). A minuscule 6 percent had a negative view of the situation. This is reflected in their support for some of the government’s key foreign policies, including on China, Pakistan, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).

The respondents’ level of concern about key foreign policy challenges – global pandemics, terrorism, border conflict with China, climate change, and border conflict with Pakistan – runs parallel to their awareness of the most pressing issues facing India. Moreover, the youth perceive the country’s challenges from its border conflicts with China to be more acute than those emanating from Pakistan. The top three priorities among the youth in foreign policy was  strengthening the Indian economy, combatting terrorism and improving relations with immediate neighbours (other than Pakistan and China). The next priorities are improving ties with the United States (US), and resolving differences with China and Pakistan.

The survey found that there was high level of concern about the rise of China as a global power and this was an important factor driving the response of urban youth regarding Indian foreign policy. The survey found 62 percent of respondents were of the view that India should abandon non-alignment in case of rising US- China tensions. The respondents expressed concern not only about China interfering in India’s neighbourhood, but also about its military and economic superiority. They also expressed fears of a breakout of war.

An overwhelming 71 percent felt that the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’, the Indian government’s economic self-reliance mission, would be good for India. Nearly nine of every ten (89 percent) say strengthening the Indian economy should be a very high priority or somewhat high priority, and 85 percent say the same about combatting terrorism.

The survey was conducted between December 3 to 21, 2020, and reflects the public opinion on foreign policy developments up to that period. Since then, the rapid pace of changes within and outside India has continued unabated.

The 60-page “The ORF Foreign Policy Survey 2021” sampled 2,037 Indian youth from 14 cities and the questionnaire was in eight regional languages in addition to English. It was the first survey that targeted the 18-35 years age group as they form bulk of the nation’s population and would be playing a critical role in shaping the nation’s future.

Among the various focus areas in the survey included improving ties with the US (82 percent) and improving relations with immediate neighbours other than Pakistan or China (79 percent). This is echoed in the heightened trust ratings of the survey respondents towards countries like Sri Lanka (68 percent) and Bhutan (55 percent). There is lower priority placed on resolving differences with Pakistan and China, as compared to other issues.

The key foreign policy decisions like i.e., controlling illegal immigration, the Balakot air strike, and strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—the percentage of respondents agreeing with the decisions were 74 percent, 68 percent, and 64 percent, respectively. While 42 percent of respondents supported the government’s position to withdraw from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), 29 percent did not approve of it, making this the policy measure with the least support from the youth.

At 83 percent, there was higher concern about border conflicts with China as compared to the border conflicts with Pakistan. This is in line with the finding that 70 percent of respondents are concerned about the rise of China as a global power. Following the border conflict in eastern Ladakh in 2020, the concern regarding border conflicts with China has overtaken worry about the disputes with Pakistan. Three-quarters of respondents (75 percent) said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about border conflicts with Pakistan.

The poll also covered India’s relations with key powers in the world, especially given the ongoing changes in the international order. It recognises that India’s interactions with, and the actions of other powers in the global system can often lead to significant impacts on foreign policy choices.

Eight of every ten (80 percent) of the respondents said they were concerned about China interfering in India’s immediate neighbourhood. A slightly lower 76 percent were concerned about China being economically more powerful than India, and 75 percent said they were worried that the border clashes with China could lead to a war.

More than seven of every ten (77 percent) of the respondents rated the US as the country they trust the most among the leading global powers. The US was followed by Australia, Russia, Japan, France, the United Kingdom (UK), and the European Union (EU). The country that the respondents distrusted the most (77 percent) was China. These perceptions have also been reflected in the respondents’ vision for the future, about which powers will be India’s leading partners in the coming decade: the Quad, Russia, and Europe are preferred, in that order.

The high level of concern about the rise of China as a global power is an important factor driving the response of urban youth regarding Indian foreign policy. The survey found 62 percent of respondents were of the view that India should abandon non-alignment in case of rising US- China tensions. The respondents expressed concern not only about China interfering in India’s neighbourhood, but also about its military and economic superiority. They also expressed fears of a breakout of war.

The urban youth are deeply divided over the impact of globalisation on India and its economy, society and culture, their standard of living, travel to and from other countries, and education opportunities overseas. While the opportunity to study abroad is viewed positively, the optimism regarding moving abroad to work or stay is markedly much lower.

Though India may not have as yet become a  major power, it can no longer be a player that can be ignored – India has a unique position today that has led to an ongoing lively debate on the choices being made as the country positions itself in the world. The fractious nature of the debate reveals the inflection point that has been reached: the roads taken will define Indian policy in the years to come, just as much as those not taken will.

While foreign policy continues to be an elite decision- making domain, India, as a democracy, should remain steadfast in considering public opinion, especially when it comes to issues with far-reaching consequences. With 65 percent of the Indian population being young—i.e., below the age of 35— taking this demographic along its journey becomes even more significant.

Meanwhile, the Modi government’s approach to China in the aftermath of the 2020 border clashes garnered support among 78 percent of the respondents. This approach was characterised by a strong military response, stricter rules regarding entry of Chinese investments, banning of certain apps, and a heightened engagement with other regional powers.

This poll has given both predictable and unpredictable results, providing insights into the understanding of Indian youth on critical issues related to India’s foreign policy. The positive assessment of growing ties with the US, increased wariness regarding China, and concern about issues like terrorism and climate change all reflect the prevailing policy discourse. However, there were also certain findings that could be seen as diverging from predominant opinion among the community of Indian foreign-policy strategists and experts.

– The writer is a senior journalist and media consultant. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.