Friday, 30 September, 2022
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Diplomacy’s red flag

Nations need to negotiate with plenty of manoeuvrability and fleet-footedness, with lots of space to the left, the right, back and forth.

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Looking back on the week, you can’t help thinking the windmills are really in fashion this season. Your television channels have been repeatedly displaying them, as part of commercials for a wind energy company’s IPO. Windmills of a different kind have been looming large on our political landscape as well.

The Left (and to a more limited extent, the BJP), seems to have discovered their own to tilt at. If the Congress has any common sense (self-esteem, it buried a long time ago under the Holy CMP), it must sometimes wonder who, in this fantasy, is Don Quixote and who, Sancho Panza.

For a paper (and a writer) that has plugged the idea of a vigorous domestic debate on foreign policy, of the need to shed the lazy old idea of foreign policy-making by national consensus, it is odd to complain about it now. But so spectacular has the latest turn ‘after the IAEA vote’ been that it has left everybody stunned, most of all the Iranians!

At a time when even they have been more mature in their responses, they have been taken aback by the support they have suddenly received in the Indian political system. Even more so, by the almost wishful exhortation by those opposed to UPA’s foreign policy to go back on on-going hydrocarbon deals. Go back on deals, the Iranians can.

Driving hard bargains is a centuries-old Persian skill. And if you catch Mani Shankar Aiyar, the original Marxist, in his more candid moments some day, he will tell how exasperating it has been dealing with the Iranians over the past months of negotiations. They have generally reneged on one commitment after another, squeezing India for the last possible dollar. What he may still not tell you is how much cockier the Iranians have got lately, believing that India’s compulsions on the pipeline are not merely commercial but also political.

The UPA needs the pipeline desperately ‘or so they think’ to keep its Leftist allies happy and therefore they have no hesitation in exploiting the compulsions of India’s domestic politics for their own commercial benefit. The Iranians are not about to cancel anything in a fit of anger or emotion. They need the dollar much more than we need their gas. We can buy it elsewhere, but who else can they sell so much gas to?

The same applies to Pakistan, too. Yes, India needs the pipeline for gas from Iran and also as yet another instrument of stabilisation of its relationship with Pakistan by building a common economic interest in peace. But, similarly, the Pakistanis need that pipeline, for commercial as well as political purposes.

If India is not a part of it, the pipeline is a pipedream. It is financially un-feasible and, really, howsoever much he may thrust his khaki, be-medalled, bully’s chest at hapless women’s groups questioning his insensitive remarks on rape, do you really expect Musharraf to defy the US entirely by himself and build a pipeline from Iran, without India in the deal?

Also read: India’s comatose opposition is letting Modi govt’s foreign policy go unchallenged

This was the logic on which India’s original negotiating position was built, that if the Pakistanis want the pipeline, they also need something in return. And no, it was not additional assurances on controlling terrorism. It was something as small as limited transit rights to Indian goods by road to Afghanistan. But Pakistanis are far too sharp to have missed the opportunity presented by the pipeline becoming such a left-liberal cause-celebre in India.

Out went all discussion on transit rights. They even, most bloody-mindedly, blocked UN World Food Programme from carrying high-protein biscuits donated by India for Afghan children. The moment the pipeline issue got linked so fantastically to the idea of defiance of America and support for an “anti-America”, “third world” , “non-aligned” (I am surprised we haven’t heard secular and liberal in the list of adjectives yet) Iran, the Pakistanis changed their tone.

The good thing about Pakistani leaders and diplomats also is that one thing they cannot hide is glee, particularly when they think they have put one past India. Try speaking to senior Pakistani officials now and ask how come they are not willing to concede even symbolic transit rights in return for the pipeline. You will get a mischievous smile, if not a straightforward ‘why should we, who needs the pipeline more?’ We may just make money on it, but you guys must have it for your domestic politics!

Iran and Pakistan are not the only ones to have discovered the new opportunities brought by India’s domestic foreign policy debate stumbling in ideological faultlines within its ruling coalition. Some of the recent responses from China are more than mere straws in the wind. We are so caught up in this suicidal ideological confusion that we have overlooked the very significant postponement of the opening of the Nathula transit route by the Chinese to April next year.

The date for the opening was fixed a long time back and if anybody buys at face value the Chinese reason for postponement, that logistical preparations on their side are not complete yet, he lives in cloud cuckoo-land. It is more likely the Chinese have also figured the confusion here and decided to turn the knife slowly so as to extract more concessions on the border issue. Please do not overlook the fact that Nathula is located in Sikkim and its opening as a trade and transit route was to be a significant step of Chinese acceptance of Indian sovereignty there.

Also read: India needs new foreign affairs ambassadors — India Inc, think tanks and academicians

On the nuclear front, just as we are breaking free of our 34-year-old isolation from civilian nuclear trade and technology, there are indications that when we go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, we may run into the Beijing Wall. China might want to extend this special favour to Pakistan as well.

Nobody is saying this officially yet, but it is most likely that the Chinese too have realised the opportunity that an overly ideological foreign policy environment in India presents to them. The Chinese are too smart not to have read the CMP and the special treatment it accords to relations with them.

It is a mere 17 words, but their significance is not to be missed: “Trade and investment with China will be expanded further and talks on the border issue pursued seriously.” It is possible that so far they, like the rest of us, also may not have realised that India’s current political realities will make the foreign policy section of the CMP a much more significant document than you would have imagined.

Now read, in comparison, what the CMP does say on the US: “Even as it pursues closer engagement and relations with the USA, the UPA government will maintain the independence of India’s foreign policy position on all global and regional issues.”

There are no such qualifications on China even when it comes to negotiating your own territories occupied by them. And poor Russia? It’s been dismissed in a word or two, as a mere mention in the despatches in a manner of speaking: “The UPA is committed to deepening ties with Russia and Europe as well.” In comparison, the Palestinian homeland gets a full, 20-word sentence.

This writer, like many others, was also guilty in not reading the foreign policy section of the Holy CMP so carefully because you don’t really imagine a regional power with notions of a place at the head table allowing its foreign policy to be straight-jacketed and knee-jerked by an illiterate, 250-word worldview in what is, after all, a common minimum programme.

Nations need to negotiate with plenty of manoeuvrability and fleet-footedness, with lots of space to the left, the right, back and forth. When a nation’s negotiators start going out with a pre-determined, hopelessly ideological, and a supposedly inviolable framework within which they must operate, they will be pushed around by all the others who will take no time figuring this out. The Iranians, the Pakistanis and the Chinese have done so already. So will the Americans and the rest.

The consequences of this will be far-reaching. They will blight not just the future of other secular governments by playing straight into the BJP’s hands as evidence of their charge of the Left forces putting ideology above the national interest.

More unfortunately, as the plot unravels and a popular feeling grows that this government is not capable of managing India’s own interests on the international stage while talking vacuous third world ideology, the BJP will renew its attack on the lines of, so what else did you expect from a Congress led by an Italian? This slur will be as unfortunate as it will be undeserved, but, once you bring ideology into foreign policy, it may stick. Finally, and worst of all, it will afford India’s adversaries and rivals so many one-sided opportunities and damage our own national interest for years to come.

Also read: India needs clear foreign policy as world heads to US-China bipolar order, Fareed Zakaria says


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