Prabhu Chawla's revelation (in Mail Today March 31, 2008) that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) played a role in canceling the Dalai Lama's scheduled meeting with the Vice-President Mr. Hamid Ansari tells us a lot about India’s foreign policy. Beyond the issues of non-alignment, independence and its new orientation is the reality that it is unusually timid.
I am reminded of the Russian poet Evegeni Yevtushenko's 1960s work “Monologue of a Polar Fox On An Alaskan Fur Farm”. The poem is an allegory on the subject of freedom in the erstwhile Soviet Union. A blue fox being bred for its fur in an Alaskan farm finds its cage door open. It leaves the cage for a while, revels in his new found freedom, dreams of the future life outside, and then he returns into the cage because as the poet notes, “A child of captivity is too weak for freedom.”
India is like that poor blue fox. For 60 years it has been in a cage, not always of its own making. And now when the door has opened, it is unable to cope, and finds greater comfort in remaining in its prison, rather than risking the joys and uncertainties of freedom.
It is no use blaming the communists for this predicament. The larger Indian intelligentsia, political formations like the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party must take responsibility for the state of affairs. As for the Left, its attitude is not remarkable. Through their history, they have set one standard for themselves, and another for the others. Their foreign connections, including funding, is seen by them as being part of socialist internationalism; similar activities of others are attributable to machinations of imperialism. China's policies — be they expressed in Mao's homicidal sweeps like the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — are regrettable “errors” of a great man, while the mild pragmatism of our Congress party in seeking to maintain good ties with the United States is a sell-out to, what else, imperialism.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's idea of non-alignment was to create space in the power blocs that emerged in the wake of the Cold War. But it came with a price, for example on Kashmir. Beginning 1953, after a war and many tortuous sessions with the United Nations mediators, India and Pakistan came close to resolving the Kashmir issue through bilateral talks. The protagonists were Pandit Nehru and the Indian government and the Pakistani governments, headed first by Khwaja Nazimuddin, and then by Muhammad Ali Bogra. Despite Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest in June of 1953, talks between the two countries were undertaken, with Nehru indicating his acquiescence, probably for the last time, for a plebiscite to decide the issue. But, the US decision in February 1954 to begin large-scale arms aid to Pakistan put paid to this.
But notwithstanding the paranoia of the Left, India was never important enough for the US to directly involve itself in our affairs. When Pakistan was ready to do their bidding, why would they have wasted their time on an argumentative and self-important basket-case that this country was till the 1990s?
Speaking to a TV channel last week, CPI(M) elder Jyoti Basu charged the United Progressive Alliance government with being far more pro-US than Jawaharlal or Indira were. Nehru may have been critical of America, but faced with a challenge across the Himalayas in 1962, the country he turned to was the US. The letter Nehru wrote to John F. Kennedy asking for a military alliance with the US in mid-November 1962 is still classified, but its summary prepared by S. Gopal reveals that for the father of non-alignment, the concept was both strategic and flexible.
For 20 years after she swept the elections of 1971 Indira Gandhi's world view dominated that of India. Both in her domestic and foreign policies, she followed a highly personalised style, one that tended to privilege personal over the national interest. So instead of depending on institutions like Parliament, Cabinet and Ministries, she worked her policies through chosen advisors. Little wonder, then, that the decision to conduct India's first nuclear test in Pokhran in May of 1974 was not based on any detailed assessment of why it was to be undertaken and what the government expected to do after the event.
What the Left finds so attractive about Indira Gandhi, reviled by many of them in her lifetime, is a selective reading of her foreign policy — her decision to hold back formal condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, her friendship with Cuba and Palestine, and her anti-American posturing. It ignores the fact that India's policy of détente, and then entente, with the United States was initiated by Indira Gandhi — the first during the Emergency itself and the second beginning with her second coming in 1980. Everything that has happened since — the economic liberalisation, the defence cooperation with the United States and indeed the Indo-US nuclear deal, have their origins in decisions taken between 1980 and1984.
The consequences of these policies have been far reaching. We already know what economic liberalisation has wrought, notwithstanding some carping criticism of “neo liberalism”. It has brought closer relations with the United States, which in turn has paid enormous dividends in terms of lubricating India’s political relations with a slew of countries ranging from Europe, the ASEAN and Japan.
This has had a noticeable impact in India’s relations with China. In Bush's first term, and till 2005, at least, the Chinese wooed India eagerly. The breakthrough decision to provide a political input on border negotiations in 2003, and the Agreement on Guiding Principles and Political Parameters, signed in April 2005, were part of this trend. They feared that the US was bent on “encircling” them by creating an alliance of democracies — Japan, Australia, India, Russia and the new Central Asian republics. But once they found that the Left had effectively stymied the Indo-US entente, the tone and tenor of their relations with India changed. When Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani visited Arunachal in 2003 we did not hear any protests from Beijing. But when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state in February 2008 the Chinese issued a formal protest.
What the Left has achieved is much more than torpedoing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Its stranglehold on the government has prevented any meaningful reform of the public sector, which includes the stultifying bureaucracy. It has succeeded in delaying India's steady incorporation into the higher tier of the comity of nations. The process began in the NDA period when India was invited to participate in a Group of Eight meeting in Evian and was followed by moves to accommodate New Delhi into the United Nations Security Council. The nuclear deal was a major detail that needed to be taken care of. The leading countries of the world could not have had India in the UNSC or the G-8, even while it remained a pariah in terms of nuclear and high-tech trade.
Our cage door did not open because the Americans pressed some lever. It did so for two reasons. First, after 1991 the Indian business class has discovered that outside the open cage door were not threats, but vast opportunities. The second was that India surprised the world by bucking against the US-led efforts to freeze its nuclear status as a “have not”. The Pokhran II tests of 1998 cut through the self-imposed prison constructed by our own rhetoric of disarmament.
Today those who push the so-called “independent” foreign policy for India, are actually seeking to persuade us that the prison never existed. They want to neutralise India by creating an association in the mind of the people with the now obsolete concept of non-alignment. The Left’s ambition runs deeper towards signing the country up with the alliance of autocracies — Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and Cuba.
India is being offered a choice today. Hitherto, Indian policies were often determined by the actions of others. Today, New Delhi’s views and policies make a difference. India’s growing economic and military power, combined with the soft power that only a flourishing democracy and an open society can exercise, provide it with the wherewithal to become a truly global player. But while the US can offer us one option of faring forward into the new world, there is also the other— of going back into the cage.
The article was first published in Mail Today April 2, 2008