International status-quo in India’s favour may or may not last forever
For India, it is imperative to maintain a balance between counter-terrorism and human rights. Former External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid weighs in on foreign policy demons and angels
From Yasser Arafat calling Indira Gandhi his sister to Netanyahu calling Narendra Modi his exceptional friend; USSR using its veto (100th) to protect India from the West to the US rejecting Pakistan’s attempts to internationalise Jammu and Kashmir, is a long journey across the diplomatic landscape.
India is important and strong. But then, we always were. It is another matter that we are now a nuclear power (with almost full membership of the exclusive club) but for that, we must thank the soft-spoken Dr Manmohan Singh. It is also important that we have a significant economic presence as one of the powerful emerging economies of the world but that too has a great deal to do with the former Prime Minister in his avatars as the Union Finance Minister and the head of the UPA government. It is quite another matter that the present Prime Minister has never publicly accepted that and has happily assumed that the story begins in 2014.
India’s unique foreign policy began long before its pursuit of economic or military potency. The Non-Aligned Movement was India’s statement that beyond our own Independence, lay the commitment to see Africa free and the entire third world (later described as the South) shake off the shackles of poverty and under development. Admittedly, the aspirations were high but periodically difficult practical considerations stymied our style and substance.
Tibet, Poland, Cambodia and Afghanistan were tough calls but with some effort, we retained our poise and equitable standing in the world. India made an obvious contribution to Panchsheel or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence codified in 1954 as a treaty with China.
For people who continue to delude themselves that this was part of Nehru’s India recklessly throwing away our chance to dominate the world and our own neighbourhood, these far sighted decisions were not taken showing fear or favour to more powerful forces but consistent with the world view that informed our freedom movement under Mahatma Gandhi and consciously incorporated in our foreign policy after Independence. There were after all the NATO and CEATO models available that we consciously rejected in opting for NAM with Col Nasser of Egypt and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia.
In the years preceding our Independence, we chose to back the Turkish Revolution (Khilafat Movement) and the cause of Palestine. In both of those, we were backing a Muslim cause but as a secular enterprise. All Indians came out for the causes, not the Muslims alone. Something similar was to happen when across the religious landscape, all Indians backed Saddam Hussein in his opposition of the United States.
PM Modi might claim some credit for having erased the barrier of friendship by receiving accolades from Israel as well as receiving the highest honour from the UAE. The politics of the Arab world playing itself out has obviously given him the space for keeping both sides happy but India looks pale in its commitment to Palestine where even the US, over a period, has shown greater commitment to the cause of Palestinians of occupied lands. Of course, President Donald Trump’s call cannot be predicted.
While the balancing act is working for the present, ultimately the test of putting our money where the mouth is might prove more difficult to handle. We have already departed from our firm position of voting with Palestine on the UN resolutions, possibly against the advice of seasoned diplomats.
Meanwhile, President Trump continues to give us goose bumps periodically by gratuitously offering to mediate between India and Pakistan, then nudging us to talk bilaterally but talk indeed. On the other hand, he has made it clear that India has to do more (along with Pakistan) to ensure that Afghanistan does not fall back into the hands of the Taliban as US troops withdraw.
Is India’s Panchsheel a thing of the past then? Is our autonomous decision making under self-inflicted restraints in return for a hug? Our military interventions in Sri Lanka and Maldives were on the invitation of the governments of those countries, never on the nudge of a third country. Is that to change as suddenly and surreptitiously as some decisions with far reaching consequences have been taken in the country?
We are already talking about reviewing ‘no first use’ nuclear doctrine that gave us a special profile in the world. India made itself strong because we were seriously let down by a neighbour while another kept hoping to create enough trouble to force us to relent from our moral and strategic positions. We did not seek military prowess to dictate to any part of the world to follow our designs.
Suddenly, it seems that the soft power we have long used to influence the world is to be displaced by hard-power politics of interference. It is far from clear that the country will easily endorse this strategic shift or indeed that going beyond our borders with our armed might will not invite the kind of trouble many parts of the world are suffering. India has a noble tradition in UN Peacekeeping and may even be a little cautious on Peacemaking. But coalitions of the willing might not quite be our preferred path despite being ready and willing to share the high table of world powers.
Ultimately, there is the elephant in the room that we do not talk about, China. Reports from the UN suggest that all is not well on that front. Economics is influencing the India-China relationship as any other, but it is early to write off China’s role as an ‘all weather friend’ of Pakistan. The latest talk of China garnering cooperation with Russia against the US, putting us in the difficult position to choose, does not bode well for the future. Are we to wonder, ‘you can be friends with some for some time, some all the time, but not all, all the time’?
The biggest point in our favour is the worldwide resolve to combat the menace of terrorism. No one heard us when we were the victims. But once others became victims, everything changed. But the pendulum of global politics swings rapidly. We need to watch that our policies do not disturb the delicate balance between counter-terrorism and human rights.
Let us not assume that the status quo will hold in our favour indefinitely. We have the upper hand for now, but imponderables continue to simmer in our backyard. To fix them, we may need to fix our home first, economically and politically.
Demons are bad, we know. But the fact is that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
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