By Swapan Dasgupta
President Barak Obama is reported to have told some of his officials that it would be much easier to be the President of China than be resident at the White House. This backhanded compliment to autocratic governance is certain to be endorsed by the mandarins of at least one Ministry in South Block.
India is a rumbustious democracy with a citizenry that is infuriatingly inquisitive and argumentative. However, the demands for transparency don't seem to apply to the conduct of foreign policy. Rarely does Parliament witness a serious debate on India in the world; foreign policy doesn't intrude into competitive politics unless the issue happens to be Pakistan—the furore over the Indo-US nuclear agreement was a rarest of rare case; the media is seriously smitten by 'client-itis' and the principle of keep-the-source-happy; and the 'strategic community' is a cosy club for collecting dollops of air miles. The comfort level of the foreign policy establishment is so incredibly high that the Government can afford to persist with a minister who is incapable of telling the difference between a speech written for him and a speech drafted for the Foreign Minister of Portugal.
Such a system is calculated to trigger flights of whimsy which, very occasionally, even come into the public gaze. Last week, the official website of President Ahmadinejad of Iran did India a great service by divulging a version of his conversation with India's National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon—a man who has acquired the reputation for being the single-window clearance for foreign policy.
It's a riveting account and for that reason features (as of Saturday morning) as the lead item of the website, complete with a photograph of the meeting. The NSA apparently told Ahmadinejad that "New Delhi is after the establishment of comprehensive relations with Iran, including strategic ties." To further cosy up to a leader who is regarded in most of the democratic world as an oddball, Menon referred to an earlier meeting of the President with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and observed: "Many of the predictions you had about the political and economic developments in the world have come to reality and the world order is going under basic alterations, which has necessitated ever increasing relations between Iran and India." This generous tribute had been preceded by a rambling Ahmadinejad rant about the need to dismantle the "oppressive world order".
Since both the PMO and MEA have chosen to pretend that the meeting was a non-event and that there is nothing to clarify, we can presume that the Iranian version was a true account and that India does value the prescience of Ahmadinejad and shares his agenda of global reconstruction. Such a presumption would, of course, be a facile caricature of the niceties and silences that often accompany diplomacy. Yet, there are questions that need to be answered by the Government.
Menon was apparently carrying a personal letter from our PM to Iran's President. The grapevine suggests that the letter and Menon's Teheran visit was a sweetener for a bid to cadge a firm invitation for a Singh visit to Iran later this year. The letter, according to the well-informed correspondent of Telegraph in Washington, "may turn out to be the pivot around which India's West Asia policy may be calibrated to meet… new realities of this…volatile region."
That India needs to come to terms with a West Asia that is certain to experience a multi-cornered conflict between the forces of autocracy, democracy and Islamism isn't in any doubt. From the time in the 1930s when the Indian Rupee was the local currency in much of the Persian Gulf, New Delhi's influence in the region has diminished alarmingly. For this we have no one to thank but Jawaharlal Nehru's preference for ideological abstractions over neighbourhood interests. If an economically resurgent India now seeks to reclaim some of the lost ground, it is a welcome move.
Yet, going by this logic there is something extremely bizarre about using Iran as the launching pad for such an exercise. For a start, Iran views the Arab upsurge as the first step in the creation of a West Asia driven by the principles of the Iranian Revolution—a perception that is both contentious and frightening. Secondly, for all the lip service paid by Ahmadinejad to the creation of a just world order, the Iranian regime is turning increasingly autocratic and intolerant of the democratic urges at home. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the fire that began in Tunisia, engulfed Egypt and is raging in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain could also consume the theocracy in Iran at some point in the near future. Thirdly, the adventurist anti-Israel thrust of Teheran runs counter to Indian interests. Israel is unquestionably India's only enduring ally in the region—however much we choose to pretend otherwise. Finally, in view of the heightened concern in the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions, any move to cosy up to Iran—more than what is demanded by the imperatives of energy security and a western route into Afghanistan—would create diplomatic complications elsewhere.
India needs to be 'correct' in its dealings with Iran. But there is a difference between being correct and becoming obsequious—what happened to Britain in its dealings with Gaddafi's Libya. In the absence of transparency and domestic scrutiny, even foreign policy can go overboard.