India is among a handful of democracies that believe in total consensus and continuity in foreign policy which rarely dominates our electoral rhetoric. With the one prominent exception of Indira Gandhi exploiting the Morarji government’s covert diplomacy with Israel (topped by Moshe Dayan’s secret, but not-so-secret visit to India), rarely has somebody been able to exploit a foreign policy issue for partisan advantage.
This has obvious advantages. The rest of the world never has to live in any uncertainty in its dealings with us. Even the Pakistanis, who had many apprehensions when the NDA government lost, now acknowledge that the dialogue has carried on seamlessly. The non-partisan nature of the process also gives our policy-maker a great deal of elbow room. Parliamentary debates on foreign policy are so pedestrian, so unquestioning and so naam-ke-vaaste. In fact, if you study the debates closely, the Opposition questioning is mostly confined to whether a particular move amounts to a shift from the holy consensus or not.
But like all arrangements of great comfort, continuity and stability, we have to pay a price for this, and the price is not just boredom. It keeps us trapped in formulations of the past. It makes any kind of fleet-footedness difficult, tempting the policy-maker to avoid changing the inherited script or, in the event that he does dare, to do so behind the back of the system.
In the past two decades we have seen three such major shifts. First, Rajiv Gandhi’s approach to China, forgetting 1962 and a policy ossified over a quarter of a century. That new policy, of putting the border issue and the bitterness of war on the back-burner and moving ahead with normalisation, is one of the greatest legacies of Rajiv’s five years. The second was Narasimha Rao’s calibrated westward-tilt in the wake of the eastern bloc decline.
This was a seminal shift too because an essential feature of this was to drop all hypocrisy on the Middle East and upgrade our relations with Israel. Central to this shift was the belief that India could not integrate itself with the new emerging global economy without aligning its foreign policy with changing times. The third, of course, was a series of shifts under the Vajpayee government, starting with the nuclear tests and then leading on to an unabashed strategic partnership with the US.
While you could argue with much of the business of high strategy and diplomacy anyway, each one of these shifts was made entirely behind the back of Parliament, media and the political system. Each one entered our public discourse after the decisions had been implemented. Each one also involved a great deal of discretion and silence on the part of the main players.
You might say it is to the credit of our political system that these changes were not only accepted but also carried forward energetically by the successors. But it is a far from satisfactory arrangement in a world changing so rapidly. If you do a little research on the foreign policy discourse around the world, at least among the ten or so key nations, you would find almost nobody referring to any past formulations, because they are now irrelevant, they had never anticipated the kind of world we have today.
In that sense, too, India is an exception, particularly with the return of a Congress-led government and its Nehru-era nostalgia. The repeated, and so touchingly juvenile, demands and appeals for the UN Security Council membership, made even more comical by the argument on whether we will accept it with or without the veto, are a part of the same disease. It must be acknowledged, though, that it was the NDA that started this ridiculous “satyagraha” first to tumultuous applause at NRI conclaves and the UPA is turning it into an Ashwamedha of sorts, riding the very potent vehicle called the MEA press conference.
Please do a search on the press coverage of all visits by foreign dignitaries in the last year or so, and you will find some headline in each case saying he/she supports India’s case for the permanent membership. Any Indian dignitary or parliamentary delegation that goes abroad has to mouth the same demand, de rigeur. It is as if all the respect and stature we have achieved in the world since Silicon Valley discovered the Indian hand there is of no use until we get this very Cold War acknowledgement.
We know nobody will give us such a distinction just because we go on shouting the slogan, hamaari maangein poori karo, trade union style, around the world. But we are now caught in this trap. Even my indiscretion in questioning this emotion, my underlying argument that nobody gives you something, least of all a Security Council veto, just because you demand it, that these privileges come when you become so powerful nobody can deny these to you, will bring me a flurry of angry letters. That is why I must stick my neck out now to underline the next trap of a similar nature we are about to walk into.
This is the F-16 trap. The Americans are talking of resuming supplies to Pakistan and the next foreign policy slogan could be to oppose that, as if all the gains in the India-US relationship over the past five years were now to pass the F-16 test. Already, all American visitors, from Brownback to Blackwill, are being asked the same question. Soon enough our politicians, diplomats and certainly a lot of the pundits ‘ particularly those who lived through the first F-16 phase in the eighties ‘ will jump on the bandwagon. We can by no means look the other way if anybody hands over force multipliers to Pakistan or disturbs the military balance. But this is the India of 2005, a nuclearised subcontinent, and the introduction of no single tactical weapon system is going to alter the balance.
India’s leverage today should be seen not so much in terms of whether it can lobby in Washington to deny ‘ or delay ‘ the F-16 sale to Pakistan as in whether it chooses to buy from Boeing or Airbus the 50-odd aircraft even its state-owned carriers will need in the next few years. That is real leverage, and that is the reward of 20 years of robust economic growth and political stability. India has to raise itself in its own eyes and then embrace a new worldview. The great foreign policy challenge for India at this moment is to finally dump the old mindset of a lobbying nation and celebrate its new status as a buying power. Then the world would look different. Also, more welcoming and comfortable.
So, here is the greatest peril a consensual, doctrinaire foreign policy, driven by history rather than the future brings. We can get so trapped in continuity as to miss the great moments of turn and change. This is one of those moments. How we handle our evolving relationship with the US under Bush II would determine whether we emerge as a major buying power, or go back to being another lobbying Third World state.