Friday, March 23, 2012

Foreign affairs gone local

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this month, New Delhi witnessed the release of a quasi-official report entitled ‘Non-Alignment 2.0’. The report attempted to set out the broad contours of a foreign policy doctrine that would indicate carrying forward the contested legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru and, for good measure, his foremost gladiator V.K. Krishna Menon.

Regardless of the understandable wariness of some members of the committee to be typecast and slotted into a compartment, the driving force behind Non-Alignment 2.0 was explicitly political. First, it was aimed as a soft answer to those, notably in the Congress and Left parties, who have aired their misgivings of a definite pro-US tilt in foreign policy. Secondly—and this is being spoken of openly by members of India’s rarefied ‘strategic community’—Non-Alignment 2.0 is said to provide an intellectual foundation for a post-Manmohan Singh approach to foreign policy by the Congress establishment. It was, to put it bluntly, aimed as a policy primer for the Congress’ designated heir apparent, an attempt to inject his candidature with a cerebral gloss.

According to the report, a future policy of India must be centred on three “core objectives”. “to ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its development goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a just and equitable world order.”

It is unlikely that too many people will find the proposed thrust towards “strategic autonomy” and “national power” objectionable, even if they feel that linking common sense to the chequered history of Nehruvian non-alignment is gratuitous. That India must take decisions based on enlightened self-interest, rather than ideological grandstanding, is obvious but a point worth re-stating. Equally, it is crucial to emphasise that any visionary scheme to right all the accumulated wrongs of the world cannot be contemplated unless India lives up to its potential as an emerging economic power.

Perhaps India needs to remind itself that the preachiness of Nehru and Menon were often seen as presumptuous because New Delhi’s ‘national power’ was purely notional. It had become a euphemism for sloth, incompetence and flawed decisions based on “ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere.” A country that led a “ship-to-mouth” existence in the 1960s had no credible basis to pontificate on the immorality of US policy during the Cold War. Nor is the historical baggage associated with ‘national power’ enhanced by the revelation in the Mitrokhin Archive that there was a queue of ministers in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet outside the Soviet embassy offering confidential government papers.

The past history of Indian non-alignment, it is clear, does not inspire automatic confidence in the ability of this doctrine to serve as a guiding light for the challenges of the 21st century. But even if, for the sake of argument, we are able to disentangle historical baggage from the principles set out by the authors of Non-Alignment 2.0, a recognition of ground realities is necessary.

Till the Nehruvian edifice came crashing down following the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an unstated national consensus that drove Indian foreign policy. The consensus had as much to do with the dominant position of the Congress in domestic politics as with intellectual acceptance of Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s legacy—even the short-lived Janata Government didn’t deviate from the consensus. However, today, despite the apparent lack of interest in the political class with diplomacy, Indian foreign policy has become far more contested.

The most significant impediment to the projection of ‘national power’ overseas is the emergence of regional interests in foreign policy. In the past few months, the assertion of regional power in a coalition led to the derailment of the Teesta waters accord with Bangladesh and a commitment by the Prime Minister to vote for a resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission condemning the excesses of the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians. In the Indian context, the assertion of regional interests in decisions governing foreign policy may seem unique. However, evolved democracies such as the US—with a diverse, multi-ethnic population—have a rich experience of keeping one eye on domestic politics in matters affecting foreign policy. The vocal Irish lobby, the powerful Jewish lobby and the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban émigré lobby in Florida have traditionally exercised their hold over the US State Department. To these can be added commercial lobbies and, in recent times, the vocal human rights industry that played an important role in shaping US attitudes towards the Balkans, Libya and, now, Sri Lanka.

The problem with India is that the assertion of ‘national power’ has been a rarefied, elite preoccupation and insulated from the larger political process. The mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs have been traditionally insensitive to domestic political impulses. They have seen diplomacy in a way reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna and the Congress of Berlin in the 19th century. Their inability to handle democracy contributed to the mismatch of perceptions of Bangladesh with Kolkata. Likewise in the case of Sri Lanka, there was inadequate groundwork to secure an all-party consensus.

What Indian foreign policy needs is an attitudinal shift. Diplomacy is increasingly becoming linked to the political process and the ‘strategic community’ is unprepared to cope with it. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 23, 2012


T.M.Menon said...

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has rightly warned that countries which voted for the resolution will have to worry about consequences of terrorism We are already worrying like hell!
I remember a London Times article alleging that Indian Army was “on the rampage” in Kashmir, and the then Acting High Commissioner, K V Rajan writing a rejoinder disclosing that 400000 Kashmiris had to flee the Kashmir valley because of murders, kidnappings, rapes and ethnic cleansing and various intimidatory activities by Islamic terrorists. He pointed out that terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and disinformation campaign had forged an alliance to pose a challenge to India’s secular and democratic framework and institutional integrity. OIC meetings routinely pass resolutions ratifying the Pak-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir as the struggle for legitimate aspirations of Muslims.
Once an Indian, Ravi Nair, who headed Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, was heard alleging before a Round Table Conference convened by the European Parliament at Brussels that Kashmir was a bleeding colony of India. He was not the first, not the last. There are International Church bodies who consider India as a country that is lacking in religious freedom!
And as regards the gullible bleeding hearts in the United States government, Including Bill Clinton when he was the President, had no difficulty in believing that” Khalistan the Sikh homeland” was indeed an independent entity born on October 7, 1987 which he acknowledge in a letter to a Canadian Khalistani leader in a reply to an appeal!
Indian Forein Policy, right from Nehru’s days was a policy based on an enormous quantity of left-wingery, a lot of disproportionate moralising and poor diplomacy. Our Non Alignment as hilariously though truthfully put in the BBC serial ‘Yes Prime Minister’, just meant non-aligned to the United States. And it went a lot way to enthuse the American media and administration to hate us. They continue to hate us. Otherwise how could they have Pakistan as a front-line ally in their fight against terrorism when their Defence establishment emphatically confirms that the ISI is continuing to support the LeT?/TMMenon


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