As India completes its 75th year of Independence, it is vital to understand how India’s young people, around 60% of our population, perceive its foreign policy and global ambitions. To cover this gap between policymakers and the public, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) conducted The ORF Foreign Policy Survey 2022 which sampled 5,000 Indians between 18 and 35 from 19 cities and in 10 languages. Overall, most approved of India’s foreign policy, with 77% of the respondents rating it as either good or very good.
The China threat appeared palpable. The survey found that the Pokhran nuclear tests, the India-China war, and the Galwan Valley clashes were perceived as key turning points in India’s foreign policy. Border conflicts with China were seen as India’s biggest inter-state foreign policy challenge (84%) — even surpassing conflicts with Pakistan (82%). An overwhelming majority saw China and its rise as a threat to India’s borders, making it their least-favoured (24%) partner.
Young people displayed optimism over the India-United States (US) relationship. Although the US was seen as the second-most trusted partner since Independence, 85% of respondents thought the US will be India’s leading partner in the next 10 years; 83% of respondents also agreed that US support will be crucial to India’s rise.
Indian interests remained the driver for such a perception. For instance, Indian youth preferred non-alignment and neutrality if US-China tensions increase. But responses changed when Indian interests were at stake: 73% said that India should align with the US to countervail China.
Many respondents indicated optimism for Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine; 43% saw Russia as India’s most reliable partner since Independence. Respondents also backed robust defence relations between both countries. But many showed their awareness of broader geopolitical changes. For instance, an overwhelming majority agreed that India’s economic ties with Russia are limited and expressed concerns about strengthening Russia-China ties, and India and Russia drifting away from one another. When it came to India’s leading partner in the next 10 years, Russia was ranked third, behind the US and Australia.
In a multipolar, more uncertain world order, regional powers are growing in importance. Quad found limited enthusiasm among respondents but some members such as Australia and Japan enjoyed a significant positive perception. Japan was seen as the most important Indo-Pacific partner in the future, followed by Australia.
Despite India’s rising stakes in the new world order, young people attached strategic importance to India’s neighbourhood. Respondents believed India defined its neighbourhood efficiently and followed an adequate foreign policy across all the sectors — security, trade, and culture. However, the results indicated the need to increase political engagements, and infrastructure and connectivity projects across the region. This shows that young people want India to continue investing in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
Terrorism (86%) and border conflicts with Pakistan remained important challenges for India’s foreign policy. Essentially, barring China, Pakistan and the Taliban-governed Afghanistan (33%), the youth trusted other neighbours and possessed a positive perception of their relationship with India. The majority of respondents (58%) also indicated that India’s foreign policy of not engaging with Pakistan benefited regional peace and stability. That said, respondents supported (68%) India’s Afghanistan policy after the American withdrawal, and a plurality of Indian youth (37%) supported limited engagement with the Taliban to secure Indian interests.
Non-traditional and transnational threats were seen as significant threats. The pandemic (89%) was considered as a bigger challenge to India’s foreign policy than border conflicts with China and Pakistan. Similarly, a majority agreed that multilateralism should be India’s preferred mode of engagement with other countries. There is a strong urge for multilateral reforms — 91% of respondents supported India’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. Overall, there was a positive perception of India’s foreign policy among the youth. Respondents demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of India’s foreign policy and the evolving world order.
The foreign policy of a country is often driven by popular perception. In countries such as the US and France, young people are having a decisive impact on national conversations on foreign policy approaches and influencing what issues get on the agenda. It is, therefore, important to understand how young people perceive foreign policy goals as they are important stakeholders, an even more critical process in a young nation such as India. This, and future editions of the survey, will continue bridging the gap between the policymakers and the public.
Harsh V Pant is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor at King’s College London Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is fellow, ORF
The views expressed are personal