Friday, July 02, 2010

Freedom from history (July 2, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

An interesting, but not necessarily intriguing, feature of the summit that concluded in Toronto earlier this week was the nomenclature. To the British media, it was unquestionably the Group of Eight (G-8) Summit. Their Indian counterparts, however, preferred to view it as a conclave of the Group of Twenty (G-20).

Both were right. The G-8 Summit set the stage for the G-20 meeting, not least to demonstrate that the definition of Big Powers has been enlarged since the victors of World War II rewarded each other with permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. The G-8 is a cosy, time-tested club, even if it includes an excitable Italy and a Russia that some are very wary of. The G-20 on the other hand is more diffused but includes, among others, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia — countries that will shape the global economy of the future.

The perception that the G-8 constitutes a Super League is self-comforting for a country such as Britain that is increasingly unsure of its own future. Moreover, since news coverage tends to be shaped by national boundaries, it is understandable that the British media focussed primarily on Prime Minister David Cameron’s debut on the international stage. It referred to Mr Cameron being the “new kid on the block” and contrasted his social ease with the earnestness of his predecessor, Gordon Brown. Predictably, there was no mention of US President Barack Obama’s one-liner that when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke, the world listened. To them, it was more interesting that Mr Obama reinforced the “special relationship” between the two English-speaking countries by offering Mr Cameron a lift on his helicopter.

It is tempting for those who carry the baggage of “anti-colonialism” to rush to the conclusion that the British media’s coverage of the goings-on in Toronto points to an unwarranted arrogance that is typical of an erstwhile imperial power. Arguably, the attitudes of some Britons could do with some modifications. Fortunately, the conduct of foreign policy isn’t always linked to popular priorities. If that was so, India would barely be bothered to look beyond the emotive boundaries of its complex relationship with Pakistan.

The point to note is that Mr Obama’s flattering references to Dr Singh wasn’t an isolated act of generosity. In a move whose significance hasn’t been fully grasped as yet, the new Conservative-led coalition government in London has decided to refocus British foreign policy. According to an interview by its foreign secretary William Hague to a British newspaper, Britain will pursue a “distinctive” foreign policy and will no longer be obsessed by the three “blocs” — the US, European Union and West Asia: “Britain must forge a distinctive new global identity which focuses as much on emerging nations such as India, Brazil, Chile and the Gulf states”. It has been suggested that Mr Cameron is intent on a “special relationship” with India, the contours of which will be unveiled during his visit to Delhi in July.

It is unfair to expect any Indo-British “special relationship” to replicate the 70-year-old Anglo-American entente. There are large areas governing politics, intelligence and defence that will remain outside the orbit of special privilege until mutual trust deepens. It would be unrealistic, for example, to expect Britain to suddenly become publicly wary of Pakistan’s designs on Afghanistan and Kashmir. The misgivings — and there are many — of the multiple power centres in Islamabad will be private and understated, not least because Whitehall isn’t terribly anxious to provoke its citizens of Pakistani origin into making foreign policy a facet of its domestic agenda. Having burnt its fingers quite badly in the Afghan operations, a country such as Britain is likely to redefine its core competence away from war games. mr Cameron, for example, has already indicated that he doesn’t expect British troops to be in Afghanistan for more than four years.

The disengagement of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces from Afghanistan before either a political settlement or a military victory is worrying for India. Pakistan’s recovery of its “strategic depth” is bound to add to the existing complications in Indo-Pakistan ties. At the same time, it is also unrealistic to expect the US and Britain to continue to shoulder all military responsibilities in what is turning out to be an unwinnable war. New Delhi will have to undertake some innovative diplomacy, in conjunction with the West, to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t revert to being a springboard for global, jihadi terror.

A policy based on mutual recognition of each other’s compulsions is the most viable architecture for India’s relationship with the West. A heartening feature of the new dispensation in Whitehall is that it doesn’t inherit the ideological baggage of the Brown government. For India, Britain is an invaluable trade partner, a source and destination for capital investment and a half-way access to both the European Union and the US. If a country with a toehold, albeit a tenuous one, in the G-8 is offering India a “special relationship”, it must be grabbed enthusiastically, even if there isn’t convergence on every issue.

India has to finetune its foreign policy to suit the imperatives of business. That involves underplaying strategic calculations in the neighbourhood and, equally, being less prickly in responding to slights, real or imaginary. For a start, India would do well to not react to every so-called “anti-India” demonstration, whether in Canada or Britain. South Block must realise that Canadian foreign policy isn’t shaped by fringe Khalistani groups in Toronto and Vancouver; nor is British foreign policy moulded by Balti restaurant owners in Birmingham.

The G-20 Summit was an occasion for some soul-searching. India figured positively because it has come out of the economic downturn relatively unscathed. New Delhi is in demand because its potential has been acknowledged. It would be silly to fritter away this advantage by pretending we are a helpless Third World nation and remaining a prisoner of history.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, July 2, 2010

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