Sunday, September 08, 2013

We’re better off minding our own business, really

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a brief period in the mid-1990s when Indian newspapers suddenly began carrying front page reports of a conflict in the Balkans that few readers understood and fewer were interested in. The reason was quirky. Those were the days when cable TV enabled us to view CNN and BBC but domestic regulations prevented the entry of Indian TV channels—apart from DD. Consequently, impressionable chief subs imagined that the hierarchy of news that resonated among the editorial classes in Atlanta and White City, London, had to find reflection in India.

Mercifully, that era was short-lived and the G-20 summit with its preoccupation with the impasse over Syria attracts the inevitable yawn from a readership that is too preoccupied with domestic concerns. Mercifully too India is represented by a PM who is naturally taciturn. Imagine the plight of the global leaders if, in addition to the cold stares that Obama and Putin have exchanged, it was subjected to a moral sermon on global iniquities by a Jawaharlal Nehru who had an opinion on everything and never made a secret of them.

One of the more positive contributions to post-Cold War foreign policy by P.V. Narasimha Rao—a canny, old fox—was that India stopped being preachy and confined its focus to matters that directly affected it. Of course, an escalation of the civil war in Syria following possible US air attacks to punish President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebel army will have a direct bearing on India’s limping economy by driving up oil prices and unleashing another wave of jihad. Yes, India has a direct interest in keeping the conflict localised. But the more pertinent question is: are we in any position to influence the course of events? Do we have the capacity to wag a finger at either the US, France and Russia or, for that matter, the theocrats in Iran who are itching to take advantage of an enlarged conflict?

Earlier this week, during the Australian election campaign, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott (who may well be PM next week) advised his country to exercise exemplary caution on the Syrian crisis. Australia shouldn’t, he said, “be getting ideas beyond our station.” This is probably the most pragmatic and wise thing any politician has said in recent times and it is one that, quite fortuitously, India must use as its guiding principle in foreign policy.

This is not to thereby imply that Damascus and Delhi are bound together by a ‘special relationship’ centred on dynastic rule. That there is huge internal dissatisfaction against the Assad regime is undeniable. The exasperation with one-party autocratic rule that began in Tunisia two years ago has proved extremely contagious. But the outpouring of resentment has also taken a direction that doesn’t correspond to enlightened values. Democracy and human rights are not absolute principles as some Western leaders seem to imagine; they are grounded in a political and cultural context that often defy those very ideals.  

The post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq had a greater measure of support throughout the world. But this tacit endorsement of intrusive and, very often, drone diplomacy, have today bred greater scepticism. Perhaps this has got a great deal to with what historian Niall Ferguson detected as America’s lack of an Empire mindset. Whatever the reasons, India’s western neighbourhood is in a state of turmoil. More important, the ‘baddies’ Washington sought to eradicate—partly as an extension of its own homeland security—have regrouped and are likely to create problems for India in the not-too-distant future. The only other country that is likely to face even more serious consequences of the West’s inability to cope with ‘foreign’ problems is Israel. But political correctness has deemed that it is ‘not done’ to be so forthright about the natural convergence of interests between India and Israel.

The sight of India as an inconsequential bystander in the G20 summit may offend national pride. But that is an incidental price to pay for our larger failure to live up to our allegedly awesome economic “fundamentals” and our wooliness over securing our immediate neighbourhood. The time to identify our national priorities couldn’t be more pressing.

Sunday Times of India, September 8, 2013 

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