On a fragile base

02 December 2006
Recent events highlight a lack of vision and moral clarity in foreign policy. Unless this deficit is filled, India will fail to pull its weight in the global arena, says Bidwai.

What kind of foreign policy should India adopt as it emerges as a significant player on the world stage? Should the policy be based on general doctrines and principles, including equity and balance in the global order, and on advocacy of human rights, democracy and justice? Or should we abandon "romantic" notions of promoting a better world, especially through solidarity with the oppressed and the weak? Should India, like China, consummately play "the-balance-of-power game"?

The question is sharply brought into focus by recent developments, including India's projection of its economic power, not the least through some domestic business groups' aggressive forays abroad; its appearance at the top of the global list of importers of armaments; the recent passage of a Bill in the United States Senate facilitating the India-U.S. nuclear deal; the Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan; and, above all, the just concluded visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Each of these is presented as an Indian success, if not triumph. In some respects, this is true. But each instance has an unsavoury angle, which should make us pause and think.

Our business groups' acquisitions abroad do not speak of a generalised dynamism based on innovation or new technology absorption in India's corporate sector. Nor do they have worthy public consequences. India is pursuing ever-expanding military capabilities - well beyond its genuine defence needs, which perhaps only require a fraction of the gargantuan Rs.100,000-crore military budget. India is projecting its power at the regional and global level, through a "blue-waters" navy and other offensive capabilities.

Take the India-related nuclear Bill in the Senate's "lame duck" session. It went through thanks to hyperactive lobbying by the U.S.-India Business Council - led by American nuclear and armaments industries corporations salivating at possible Indian contracts - and the Zionist American Jewish Committee. India will have to repay them at a considerable cost.

That apart, the deal itself is disastrously flawed and morally unacceptable. It will "normalise" India's nuclear weapons-state status, legitimise the U.S.' nuclear weapons, and belie the promise to fight for global nuclear disarmament, besides promoting the wrong path on the energy front.

The India-Pakistan talks produced a modest but positive outcome in the shape of the "joint anti-terrorism mechanism" and other things. But the two failed to resolve even Siachen - on which a solution is overdue - largely because the Indian Army vetoed a troops pullout without demarcating existing positions. Worse, it deplorably intruded into policy-making by organising media reporters' visit to convey its opposition.

India and Pakistan have still not transformed their relationship qualitatively; it continues to be based on and driven by rivalry: they are, at maximum, trying to manage the rivalry "responsibly" while keeping their foot pressed firmly on the nuclear pedal.

There is moderate progress in Sino-Indian relations. Hu reportedly assured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that China would support India's bid for a permanent Security Council seat and agreed with his argument that a boundary solution should not displace settled people. The two have expanded their ambit of cooperation.

However, they have failed to exploit even a respectable portion of their potential as rising powers, where two-fifths of humanity lives. If India and China set their sights high, they could transform the way the world is managed politically and economically. But evidently, they have decided to be conservative and accept the terms of discourse set by others. They may coordinate their positions in the Doha trade talks, but that is no guarantee that they will ensure an equitable deal for the world's poorest peoples and least developed countries.

China is far too preoccupied with its own growth and other priorities to want to proactively reshape the world. Whatever one's view of China's social and political system, there can be very little dispute about its foreign policy orientation right since the days of "ping-pong diplomacy", when it turned against the Soviet Union.Yet, India is being asked to emulate the Chinese model of unbounded "pragmatism" (contrasted to principle) and cynical balance-of-power politics in the interests of "realism". Under this model, it would be legitimate, say, to promote proliferation of weapons of mass-destruction, ignore/oppose worthy human rights conventions, build an alliance with the U.S. by colluding with its project for Empire, and strategically tie up with the most reactionary regimes everywhere (as China did in Africa to counter Soviet influence).

India is already practising components of this model. For instance, ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL) has invested heavily in Sudan and Myanmar. These governments have appalling human rights records. Sudan is complicit in the genocide in Darfur. OVL, to its disgrace, bought the equity of a Canadian company, Talisman, that was forced by public pressure to divest from Sudan. (China too has large investments in Sudan.) In Myanmar, whose junta uses slave labour and runs a tyrannical regime, OVL is building a pipeline. The bulk of this revenue will go into military budgets.

It is hard to believe that the same India once led the global campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa by boycotting goods, and substantially supported the African National Congress, which called for sanctions. Recently, India facilitated agreements among Nepal's political parties whose mass agitation paved the way to a historic change favouring radical democratisation.

It is imperative that India correct its course and adopt a proactive stand on democracy and human rights. Our interest does not lie in this or that oil and gas contract or commercial venture. Indeed, it does not even lie in becoming an economic superpower or a major global economic player. Such things hold very little meaning internationally - unless they are tied to a purpose. Domestically, there is, as in China and for that matter the U.S., a yawning gap between the country's world economic stature and the standard of living of its people, especially the bottom third of the population.

More fundamentally, we must interrogate the meaning of superpowerdom. Superpowers are hated and feared more often than they are respected or liked. The U.S., the unquestioned and only superpower since 1991, is a prime example of a country and government that is abhorred and disliked in uniquely uncomplimentary ways everywhere in the world despite its awe-inspiring power, especially military power.

That apart, a country's greatness must logically be measured in universal not parochial terms, such as its particular self-interest. India could credibly claim greatness if it contributes to making the world a better place - more democratic, less unequal and skewed, more plural and respectful of diversity, more humane and peaceful, and more alive and alert to the needs of underprivileged people and states.

In some ways, India is better placed to make such a contribution than many other countries because of its credentials as the world's largest democracy, its staggering internal plurality, its rich history, its leadership of the global decolonisation movement and the Non-Aligned Movement, and its past advocacy of morally worthy causes, including the New International Economic Order fair to the global South, nuclear disarmament, peaceful resolution of disputes, lawful conduct of international relations, and opposition to hegemony and domination.

If India were to integrate its Muslims on an equitable basis and truly practise secularism, it could offer a shining example of pluralism and diversity unmatched even in the most developed countries. Such an India would have a great deal to teach the West about its fundamental blunder in looking at terrorism through an Islamophobic lens and dealing with it by blunt military means. The worth of such an intervention in enhancing global security and promoting social cohesion and solidarity cannot be overstated.

However, making such contribution presupposes a radical change in domestic policies, entrenched mindsets, and the relationship between rulers/policy-makers and the people in several domains, including politics, civil society, government, the economy and law. The Indian intelligentsia should debate precisely such issues rather than waste its energies on rationalising neoliberal policies or hubris-driven ideas of superpowerdom.

Copyright 2006 Frontline