Just in case you have been living under a rock these past few months or you are an otherworldly type or suffer from a “simply haven’t noticed” malaise, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been particularly combative, testy or spirited – pick your adjective as per your mood.
In the good old days, Indian diplomats would sharpen their wit – and language – as they fought back at the high altar of non-alignment, or more recently, against the hypocrisy of big powers which allegedly browbeat India into doing their bidding.
“Not now, not ever,” boomed Ambassador Arundhati Ghosh at the conference of disarmament in Geneva in 1996, as she turned down the international appeal to India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and sent a frisson of excitement across the Indian elite at home. India may be poor, but we could give back as good as we got, went the message.
That resounding “No”, spoken under the H.D. Deve Gowda government, was about keeping India’s nuclear option open, which the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government exercised with such alacrity two years later.
Then in 2002, then-foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal refused to accept a European Union démarche – a critical piece of paper – censuring India for the Gujarat riots in which more than a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslim.
India’s free media and democratic politics can more than enough take care of domestic fault lines, Sibal is believed to have told the EU delegation. Today, Sibal is a leading star of the Forum of Former Ambassadors, a group of retired diplomats which staunchly defends the foreign policies of the Narendra Modi government, no matter what.
Fast forward 20 years. When US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, a son of Indian immigrants, weighed into Karnataka’s hijab bans earlier this month, saying they “violate religious freedom and stigmatise and marginalize women and girls,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi harked back to India’s ‘democratic ethos and polity” and “those who know India well would have a proper appreciation of these realities.”
“Motivated comments on our internal issues are not welcome,” Bagchi added.
The big difference between then and now is that the MEA no longer confines its rebuttals to matters of high policy involving governments, but targets both rock stars and Opposition politicians, even if some of the latter are long dead.
Rihanna criticising the farmer protests are old hat – in any case, unlike Canada, the farm laws are now repealed. But when Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s redoubtable father figure Lee Kuan Yew, recently said in his own Parliament that the quality of India’s political class has declined since the time of “Nehru’s India,” the MEA summoned the Singapore ambassador and told him that his PM’s remarks were “uncalled for.”
The fact that Singapore has long been one of India’s best friends, batting for New Delhi in Southeast Asia — a region increasingly pulled towards China — didn’t matter. The historical connection is an umbilical cord — Subhas Chandra Bose raised the ‘Azad Hind Fauj’ in Japanese-occupied Singapore — which ties in to the contemporary, open embrace of Indian expatriates, as high as one-fifth, or 20 per cent, of Singapore’s five lakh population; Singapore is, and not just jocularly, often known as “India’s cleanest city.”
It is a coveted posting for Indian diplomats — External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has served there — and not just because it allows you to keep an eye on Beijing.
Singapore’s official reaction to the Indian summons has been radio silence, but there has been enough criticism at home, describing the MEA’s reaction as “thin-skinned”, as well as in the region; the South China Morning Post, a respected newspaper published from Hong Kong, said “for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nehru is a figure to be despised.”
Perhaps the politicisation of India’s foreign policy was inevitable – not that it didn’t exist in Nehru or Indira Gandhi’s time. But Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious identification of the national interest with himself is so clear and complete that it may be silly to be surprised. Perhaps the MEA has been insulated from the rough and tumble of daily politics for too long.
But PM Modi has thought nothing, for example, of meeting Afghan and Hindu Sikhs on the eve of the Punjab assembly election – the fact is, Afghan Muslims were conspicuous by their absence in his meeting. Was that a message to the Taliban government in Kabul or was it a message to voters in Punjab?
But when Modi was gifted the ‘chapan’ (a traditional Afghan robe), made famous by former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, a pleased Karzai, incarcerated at home since the Taliban took Kabul on 15 August 2021, tweeted his thanks for the PM’s “kind gesture”. Was Modi making a statement in support of Karzai or was it an inadvertent remark? For a thoroughly political being as the PM, perhaps some slips are inevitable.
On the other hand, Jaishankar, a veteran in the cut and thrust of international diplomacy, has made sure to schmooze Quad nations like the US, Japan, and Australia, play perfectly to the gallery (“if it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, then it has to be…,” he said in Canberra recently, referring to China) and sidestep questions on why India isn’t as critical about Russia as the Western world.
Of course, the answer is that India has huge interests in keeping Putin’s Russia on board – remember, it is Russian defence equipment that arms Indian troops in Ladakh and keeps them eyeball-to-eyeball against Chinese soldiers on the LAC. Moreover, India is a primary customer for the Russian S-400 missiles. So, if India stays quiet on Putin’s speech Monday recognising the two separatist groups in Ukraine – which the US-led West had explicitly warned against, with threats of sanctions – it should be seen being aware of the developing global scenario.
Certainly, Jaishankar has been a cool customer this week, shrugging off questions and refusing to give the game away on Ukraine. (And now, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden are meeting again.) It’s a bit like the good old days, when Ambassador Arundhati Ghosh lit up the headlines at home. Jaishankar has been like that these past few days, putting the cool quotient and some humour back into the defence of India’s foreign interests.
Why, then, does the concern persist that visas for pesky foreign journalists back in Delhi are being held over their heads and extended only for short periods of time, that too at the last minute? Is the MEA issuing not-so-secret code asking them to fall in line?
Thin-skinned, combative or self-assured? There are many adjectives to describe the ‘Naya MEA’ these days.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)