Travails of an MEA watcher

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

C. RAJA MOHAN, Strategic Affairs Editor at The Hindu, has written a stimulating book in pursuit of his "academic interest in world affairs" in which he holds a doctorate. He is read widely and carefully for disclosures and hints from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He is himself well informed and reads a lot. This is not an academic's study. It is an informed journalist's views on the background and course of India's recent foreign policy. The author nails his colours to the mast in the title and subtitle. We have crossed the Rubicon and shed our innocence. There is now a new foreign policy at work, a claim made often by Jaswant Singh, former Minister of External Affairs (1999-2002). Raja Mohan shares one of his views - India must link up with the United States in order to fulfil its goals. The author even shares the U.S.' impatience with Europe which, in his view, "has always whined about America's unilateralism when Washington acted with force and it complained about America's isolationism when it turned its back, but the carping about American unilateralism has become intense since 11 September" (page 70, emphasis added throughout).

The language, sweeping generalisations, contradictions and factual inaccuracies are odd in an "academic" study. The European Union matters in world affairs. The book gives it short shrift. It prefers "Middle East" to "West Asia". When, since 1945, did the U.S. "turn its back" on Europe? Both Pokhran II and the abject diplomacy of appeasing the U.S. thereafter are lauded. "The intervention that did take place from the United States in the Indo-Pakistani relationship after May 1998 tended to work decisively in favour of India. During the Kargil crisis, the U.S. pushed Pakistan into withdrawing unconditionally and unilaterally from across the Line of Control (LoC)." The jump from 1998 to 1999 as if nothing happened in between, is a feat.

"The much feared internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute following the nuclear tests of May 1998 did happen, but it helped India to reframe the question on Kashmir towards a greater emphasis on cross-border terrorism and away from self-determination for the Kashmiris." Really? On July 28, 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said plainly enough that elections in Kashmir would not conclude matters as New Delhi had hoped. They would be but "one step forward in a process of determining the will of the Kashmiri people". On what else but the future status of what Raja Mohan calls "the disputed State" (page 176)? The end to infiltration "is the precursor of setting the environment where you can make progress on the underlying issue".

In response to a direct question from the Newsweek correspondent Lally Weymouth on American role in Kashmir, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, said, "That of a facilitator". Asked if it went against the traditional Indian rejection of third-party role in Kashmir, he added, "No, that's why I said a facilitator, not a mediator." Pokhran II, we are told, "exorcised the well known Indian penchant to substitute pious-sounding slogans for effective action" (page 27).

Did Nehru refrain from "action" vis-a-vis Pakistan and China? Did Lal Bahadur Shastri? Indira Gandhi? The new clime, fostered by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, spawned a certain breed of commentators. "India's extended and exciting nuclear debate of the 1990s also brought to the surface a new stream of hyper-realists to launch an unhindered pursuit of power."

Labels are a substitute for clarity of thought. Raja Mohan revels in them - "realists", "hyper-realists", "traditionalists" and "purists". The last seems to have been borrowed from Jaswant Singh, who used it while berating the MEA in December 2001. Cliches and quaint expressions are strewn all over the book ("vocalising ideas"). Is it true that "the new leaders of India had contempt for power politics" or that "the Soviet Union became Russia and returned to the Western fold". Or that "the new ties between Washington and Moscow mark the end of the last historic rivalry in the Euro-Atlantic world?"

The author would have us believe that earlier India's leaders were babes in the wood, who infected the public with their innocence. In fact, none of them shirked from using military power. They, however, used rhetoric which fostered chauvinism. But read this: "The country's elite so internalised the moralism and idealism of India's foreign policy that it had to unlearn a lot as it confronted a transformed world order at the turn of the 1990s. India has moved from its past emphasis on the power of the argument to a new stress on the argument of power"; glib and untrue. The tribute to the BJP's outlook on foreign policy is revealing.

Raja Mohan takes liberties with the record and the sources. Omission of Ashley J. Tellis' outstanding and definitive work India's Emerging Nuclear Posture is inexcusable (vide this writer's review, Frontline, March 29, 2002).

So, is the citation of "the American historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis", as an authority. He has been denounced by three scholars of high repute. Lewis shares Huntington's notion of "The clash of civilisations". Prof. John L. Esposito noted: "Both have been seminal in defining the parameters" of a bitter debate. "The image of Islam and Muslims as menacing militant fundamentalists was presented strikingly in Bernard Lewis' The Roots of Muslim Rage" in 1990. Edward Said opined that the essay is a "crude polemic devoid of historical truth, rational argument, or human wisdom". Prof. Ziauddin Sardar, who relentlessly attacks Muslim fundamentalists in Britain, called Lewis "a senior statesman of Zionist historiography".

Raja Mohan distorts basic facts. Nepal did not agree "to abide by (sic.) eternal friendship with India" in the Treaty of 1950. Such a formulation does not exist. To aver that "the Pakistan Army responded aggressively to the Brass Tacks exercise" by Indian forces is to have the truth stand on its head. When Rajiv Gandhi learnt of the Army Chief General K. Sunderji's plans, which Arun Singh, Minister of State for Defence, approved, he was livid. The head of the Western Command, Lt. Gen. P.N. Hoon, revealed the plot. "Sunderji and Arun Singh's plan was to provoke Pakistan into a war with India, to thrust a war on the country" (Hoon; Unmasking Secrets of Turbulence; Manas Publications; page 110).

The author unwittingly exposes the two men he admires most - Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Adviser, and Jaswant Singh - as bumbling policy-makers. Mishra had "a huge surprise" when Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov "launched into a lengthy barrage" against Pokhran II when they met in Moscow on June 10, 1995, despite the entire record of Moscow's opposition to nuclear proliferation and the negative hints "even before the meeting". Mishra was the genius under whose "supervision" Vajpayee's famous letter to Clinton, citing China as reason for the tests, was drafted. "Mishra was unapologetic about the letter which did not achieve the immediate objective of distancing Washington from Beijing". Only a Brajesh Mishra could have imagined that his literary masterpiece would accomplish that result. Clinton leaked the letter to The New York Times (May 13, 1998).

Raja Mohan's flip-flops on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in tandem with New Delhi's "diplomatic flip-flops" on it from 1993 to 1996 would make a fascinating study. New Delhi agreed, around 1999, to abide by it. He endorsed that "the arguments against the CTBT after the tests were largely based on the inertia of old thinking on nuclear issues. Nuclear paranoia persisted, however, and presented arguments in terms of national sovereignty and prevented the government from clinching a quick deal with the United States on the CTBT", a typical substitute of comment for analysis. In the talks with Strobe Talbot, Jaswant Singh indicated that "India was also willing to consider binding constraints on its nuclear programme" (page 92). Raja Mohan apparently agrees with that.

India-U.S. relations constitute the heart of this book. Shortly after 9/11 "the government communicated to the American mission in New Delhi that it would extend whatever support the United States wanted, including military bases, in its global war against terrorism. India soon went public with its offer of full operational military support to the United States".

The American Embassy was surprised and "sought written clarification to figure out if India meant what is seemed to say - expansive and unconditional military support. And pat came the reply from the government. Yes" (page x). This, the author records, "is based on private conversations with informed Indian and American sources" (page 273). In order to appreciate what was afoot, one must hearken to the record outside this book.

In Washington, Jaswant Singh said on September 14 that "quality of relationship between the U.S. and India had been transformed beyond recognition. We do not need to stand on formalities" (The Times of India, September 15). Therefore, no request from the U.S. was required. Americans would not have been pleased to find him speak of "the grisly visitation of this tragedy". Visitation is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as "a disaster or difficulty regarded as a divine punishment".

Why did India rush to make the offer it did? Ironically, The Indian Express of 9/11 published an interview with Vajpayee in which he said "maybe" the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan "can meet and a structured dialogue can start". At Agra "I got India to accept the centrality of Kashmir that it is the core issue". Also, "We even agreed to put the Kashmir settlement there. Now it's a problem". Terrorist attack on the Kashmir Assembly building made matters worse. But even before that, 9/11 induced opportunistic ideas: Why not cash in on it to get closer to the U.S. than Pakistan? "Immediately after 11 September, India's expectations soared on the prospect of a final American confrontation with the sources of international terrorism in Pakistan that were now threatening the United States itself. But the U.S., as it turned out, also needed Pakistan's support... There was a deep disappointment in India that Pakistan was back at the top of the U.S. political agenda for the region." The obvious was not reckoned with.

After pained references to American indifference to India's democratic credentials, the author says: "India's security is tied up in far more intricate ways with that of the Middle East. India has an important stake in the modernisation and political moderation of the Middle East, and it might be more ready to accept the American objective of fundamentally transforming the region as part of the war on terrorism. India also has a fundamental interest in a regime change in Pakistan, one that would move the nation away from the deadly combination of militarism and religious extremism." Would he have the Jamaat-i-Islami or the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) replace President Musharraf and Prime Minister Jamali? Benazir Bhutto? Nawaz Sharif?

The chapter "Containing Pakistan" is a take-off from George F. Kennan's famous article in Foreign Affairs (July 1947) entitled "Sources of Soviet conduct". He advocated "a policy of firm containment" which would not only check Soviet power but also bring about internal change. Raja Mohan writes: "Containment, which is rooted in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, has emerged as India's only option in dealing with Pakistan... The objective of a containment policy towards Pakistan is to engineer, through external pressures, an internal transformation of Pakistan that puts an end to the sources of compulsive hostility towards India. While India did not demonstrate complete clarity in the pursuit of its coercive diplomacy, a number of new ideas were injected into the Indian thinking, including cooperating with the United States to transform the internal dynamics of Pakistan's society". Would the U.S. cooperate in this venture? And at what price? But what is urged on pages 202-203 is discarded on page 269: "Ending the bitter legacy of Partition, finding a reasonable settlement of the Kashmir dispute and normalising relations with Pakistan remain at the top of India's foreign policy agenda. The series of Indo-Pakistani crises since the overt nuclearisation of the subcontinent in the 1990s might have opened the door for a final settlement with Pakistan, and the external conditions have never been so conducive. The very attempt to move towards the goal could transform the context of India-Pakistan relations."

Kennan changed his views from containment to conciliation; but not in the very same writing. One is at a loss to know what Raja Mohan really believes in. This is not the only recantation.

The chapter "Rediscovering Lord Curzon" is a strange piece of work. Who inspired the author to resurrect him? Over a year before the book was published, The Hindu of January 28, 2002, published a report by the author under the headline "Jaswant and Lord Curzon's legacy". A week earlier, the Minister had performed at a conclave organised by India Today. He quoted from Lord Curzon's Romanes lectures in 1907, published in a book entitled Frontiers. He was Viceroy of India (1898-1905) and Britain's Foreign Secretary (1919-1924). "Taking off from Lord Curzon's discussion on the diplomacy of fixing physical frontiers... he was leading to a discourse on the new frontiers that Indian diplomacy must conquer". It was a hilarious leap. Raja Mohan decided to make it respectable. Politics had changed, geography had not. "The challenge for New Delhi, in balance, is to retain the essence of Curzon's vision that is rooted in India's geography while discarding the hegemonistic aspect of it." Raja Mohan proceeded to quote a speech Curzon delivered in 1909, which was published under the title "The Place of India in the Empire". That explains.

The Curzonian vision is part of Jaswant Singh's effort to denigrate Nehru and promote himself as the architect of a "new" course. "Five wasted years" was how he described India-U.S. relations on the eve of Clinton's visit to India (page 83). He would create anew. He said in Mumbai on July 30, 1990, that Nehru's legacy should be rejected in toto. "The temple of Santosh Mehta is far more important than the temple of Nehru. We have to be idol breakers... Somewhere the essence of India got eroded in the last 43 years. Gai (cow), Ganga and Geeta have now become communal symbols." Whether it was in the field of economics or foreign policy, Nehru's initiatives must be rejected. Clearly all these legacies - non-alignment and Nehruvian economics, which only the ignorant call socialism, and secularism - were to be rejected. (The Times of India, August 1, 1990).

To his credit, Raja Mohan repeatedly denounces Hindutva (pages xvii and 271-272). He criticises non-alignment and socialism. "India's internal socialist orientation had its foreign policy complement in India's closeness to the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. From now on, however, the success of Indian foreign policy depended on the pace of India's globalisation, its ability to strengthen links with the West."

NEVER once criticising Jaswant Singh, the author praises Nehru and even contradicts himself by recognising that his rhetoric did not correspond to the truth. "While raising high moral principles as India's standard in world affairs, he was extremely conscious of preserving and pursuing India's interests in a `pragmatic manner'" (page 26). We were told earlier (page xxi) that "the fifth transition in Indian foreign policy in the 1990s was from idealism to pragmatism." Why hark back to Curzon, ignoring Nehru's vision of India as a rising power. He wrote on October 30, 1946: "India can no longer take up an attitude other than that demanded by her geographical position, by her great potential and by the fact that she is the pivot round which the defence problems of the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia revolve."

Nehru was no romanticist. He was a hardliner. He reneged on the promise to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir as his secret letters to Sheikh Abdullah prove (January 12, 1949, and August 25, 1952). He was fully behind the Sheikh's dismissal as Prime Minister and his imprisonment for 11 years, alienating the people irreversibly. He created confrontation with China by his Map Memo of July 17, 1954, and his letter to Zhou Enlai of March 22, 1959, citing a Treaty of 1842 which bore no relevance. He imposed a Treaty on Nepal and for over a decade treated it as a protectorate. He launched a Forward Policy on the border during 1961-1962. The Jan Sangh and the Lohiaites were against a settlement and urged harder measures. It is dishonest of their heirs, the BJP and George Fernandes, to attack him for the debacle that followed.

Raja Mohan is too intelligent and informed not to know this. Why, then, does he lend respectability to the Curzonian pretensions of Jaswant Singh? He writes at the outset (page xvii): "India's new economic and foreign policies have given it an opportunity to realise the vision of Lord Curzon, of Indian leadership in the region stretching from Aden to Singapore". Neither the Gulf nor South East Asia clamour for "Indian leadership", least of all South Asia. As on much else, he ends (page 253) on a different note: "India must rethink its British legacy. Maintaining buffer zones and preventing the intrusion of other major powers into the subcontinent were illusions that were shattered quickly after the British left the region independent and divided" (page 253).

In between these comes the chapter "Rediscovering Lord Curzon". It begins with what former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit told the author: "Curzon was among the greatest (sic.) of the Indian Nationalists". This was soon after Jaswant Singh's speech, a testimony alike to Dixit's ignorance and desire to conform. Raja Mohan is no better. He quotes a passage from Curzon's book The Place of India in the Empire ignoring the text as well as the context. Curzon was explicit: "The master of India must, under modern conditions, be the greatest power in the Asiatic Continent, and, therefore, it may be added, in the world" (page 12). The logic is self-evident. Millions cannot be held in subjugation save by the greatest power of the times. On the previous page he described how "India compelled us to lay hold of Aden" and "started us on that career of territorial conquest" (page 12).

Sneh Mahajan's pioneering work, reflecting scholarship of high quality, shows that while Britain was secure in the British Isles, it was insecure in India and crafted a foreign policy designed to keep rivals from India. Without it even her place in Europe would be insecure. Curzon was not an Indian nationalist, but a British imperialist.

"The epicentre of relations of the Government of India with neighbouring States was London, not Calcutta".

The thesis is documented with archival material. "In an age when no danger was envisaged to the security of Great Britain and its Great Power status had to be retained, British policy focussed a great deal on guarding the Raj, the Omphalos of the empire". British rhetoric concealed this. Sneh Mahajan's explanation for this also explains a lot about India's rhetoric and foreign policy: "In foreign policy national interest is the key concept. There is a broad general consensus about what constitutes national interests. But these are rarely spelled out... in international relations, relatively seldom is it possible to assert that a particular pattern of thinking resulted in this decision or that action. Hence, in explaining the conduct of those determining a country's international relations the importance of perceptions, ingrained attitudes, images and assumptions - both spoken and unspoken - is being increasingly recognised."

But Raja Mohan writes: "Jaswant Singh, India's External Affairs Minister from 1998 to 2002, belongs to the Curzonian school in defining India's role in its neighbourhood. He is sharply critical of the failure of Jawaharlal Nehru in creating a strategic culture suited to its geographic requirements. Singh laments that India lost its extraordinary influence in the regions abutting the subcontinent and criticises the past governments for having `accepted the post-Partition limits geography had imposed on policy'." Fairly quoting dissent from that view, the author adds: "The neo-Curzonians concede that the implementation of a larger strategic vision for India will have to be entirely different from the original vision and take into account the new realities. Central to the vision will have to be finding ways to act in tandem with the now dominant power of the region, the United States. Until the 1990s, India sought to keep the Western powers out of Indian Ocean region. In the new situation, political cooperation with the United States becomes central to India's attempts to realise its own primacy in the region." India will wield power not in its own right but as a thekedar (contractor) from the U.S. The object of this abasement is obvious. It is the one consistent theme of this book.

Right now India is in a state when the U.S. can tell it not to be too active in Afghanistan lest it arouse Pakistan's ire (page 220). Raja Mohan makes a quick descent from Curzonian heights. "A modest foreign policy is not necessarily a dull or less challenging enterprise, for there is so much that India needs to do to complete its territorial consolidation, settle its unresolved disputes with Pakistan and China, promote regional economic integration and expand areas of cooperation with the great powers."

But for all the twists and turns it is the BJP, especially Jaswant Singh, who evokes his admiration. "The BJP had far few illusions about the relevance of past policy formulations in guiding India's post-Cold War foreign policy" and quotes at length Brajesh Mishra's false claim: "There is a new India today that is ready to question these shibboleths (non-alignment as a mantra) and take decisions on the basis of national interest". This is supported by his writing of diplomacy for the Second Republic as if the BJP established one. Jaswant Singh's remarks as he left the MEA, on July 2, 2002, are quoted approvingly: "Without directly referring to the transition that had occurred in Indian foreign policy, Singh was summing up his own contribution to changing Indian diplomacy from its old, radical, left-wing ideological orientation to a more pragmatic and interest-driven foreign policy. He asserted that India was no longer a reactive power. The country was now determined to `influence events' abroad rather than be `pushed by them'."

The scholarly essays in the volume edited by Sumit Ganguly provide a corrective to such delusions, including those of the author. It contains the essence of Ashley Tellis' thesis, which does not support the fanciful claims that are made. We are moving "Towards a `Force-in-Being'." Robert M. Hathaway provides sobering thoughts: "The closer one peers, the less substantial one finds those `strategic' linkages and convergences allegedly drawing the United States and India together. True, officials in both capitals today are far more aware of their common interests and shared perspectives, and far more open in talking about them, than their predecessors of a decade or a generation ago. But the process of translating these similar concerns into joint or coordinated policies has barely begun. Moreover, the two countries continue to differ on many of the very issues that are citied as furnishing a basis for collaboration." India claims to be a "natural ally" of the U.S., has a "strategic partnership" with Russia while holding a "strategic dialogue" with China. Strategy is the current buzz word in Delhi among Ministers and their fawning journalists.

Every essay is a work of sound scholarship. Deepa Ollapally's "On relations with Russia" is a good example. Prof. John W. Garver, a Sinologist of eminence, writes on "Asymmetrical India and Chinese Threat Perceptions" based on his mastery of Chinese sources. He writes: "Gorbachev fundamentally redefined (and thereby eviscerated) the 1971 treaty during his 1986 visit to India. This move was an important step in the process of Sino-Soviet normalisation that culminated in Gorbachev's May 1989 visit to China. Soviet arms sales to India continued, but it was now clear that Moscow would not endanger Sino-Soviet amity by supporting India against China.

"New Delhi chose not to attempt to match the Sino-Pakistan entente with a Indo-Japanese partnership. Regarding the Indo-Soviet link, China was in fact able to uncouple New Delhi and Moscow. New Delhi has failed to achieve any comparable uncoupling of Beijing and Islamabad." Few care to understand the raison d'etre of Sino-Pakistan relationship.

Raja Mohan holds that "if there was one issue other than nuclear non-proliferation that deeply divided India and the United States, it was the American attitude towards the Kashmir question." Kashmir, then, is "the core" issue in our foreign policy. It led to the alliance with Russia, estrangement with the U.S. and divides us from China. It is a measure of Jaswant Singh's incompetence that, rather than settle the border issue, he embarked on delineation of the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) and did so in gross ignorance. In June 2001, he said it would be over by the end of the year. He told a closed-door meeting of journalists and former senior officials in December 2001 that before he took over South Block, India "lacked a clear strategic vision in key foreign policy areas." He cast doubts on the ability of the China and Pakistan desks to handle complex issues. "They lack specialisation". Also "it is only now that we have a clear strategic vision on Central Asia". Before he came along there was never a clear policy on Tibet, he claimed (Saurabh Shukla; The Hindustan Times, December 6, 2001). He said that "purists" in the MEA obstructed his proposal to open the trade route to China from Sikkim.

The proposal to delineate the LOAC, misconceived as it was, was fouled up by the Minister himself raking the Sino-Pakistan boundary accord on the eve of Agra. Each side's map was supposed to depict the line of actual control. China made it plain in 1960 that it would not discuss with India the boundary to the west of the Karakoram Pass. Yet, on April 17, 2002, the map India gave to China covered that area. On March 29, 2002, Jaswant Singh told the author in Beijing that clarification of the LOAC was "something India has not been able to achieve in the last fifty years". Maps on the western sector would be exchanged by the end of the year and on the east, early this year. The talks are stalled for over a year. Raja Mohan misleadingly spoke of "technical difficulties" (The Hindu, November 18, 2002). They were accurately described by the report in The Hindu: "The two sides have hit a difficult obstacle in the path of clarifying their position in the western sector" (May 23, 2003). A sensitive issue has been needlessly raised by India, which is irrelevant to the actual task. Not once does Raja Mohan contest Jaswant Singh's claims. Fifty wasted years before he became External Affairs Minister, the first to have a strategic vision about Central Asia and a policy on Tibet and the first to think of defining the Sino-Indian border - all the hallmarks of a vainglorious amateur.

IT is such reportage in defence of the establishment that earned for Raja Mohan the sobriquet "a pro-government columnist" from one of the most respected foreign correspondents, Pamela Constable of The Washington Post. As one lays down his book, one is not sure exactly where he stands on any issue.

The book lacks coherence and consistency. The author describes and narrates. Opinions are aired but there is no analysis. Questions are posed and left unanswered. The author does not challenge. This is essentially a survey of the BJP government's foreign policy since 1998 with perfunctory references to the past.

The government's incompetence is measured by its repeatedly being surprised by the foreseeable. It conducted nuclear tests and was surprised at the greater internationalisation of Kashmir and also at Russia's anger. It did not foresee the retreat it would have to make under U.S. pressure (on CTBT and much else). Jaswant Singh went to Kandahar and was astonished at the public ridicule that followed.

A government that talks constantly about geography overlooked Pakistan's greater usefulness to the U.S. on Afghanistan and was miffed when it realised the obvious. It ordered military mobilisation thoughtlessly and had to climb down, struggling to save its face. It pressed China to define the LOAC, ignoring its reservations and ended up by botching the exercise. This is a formidable list of incompetencies. Raja Mohan laps them up. His censures are reserved for advocates of non-alignment.

Crossing the Rubicon: The shaping of India's New Foreign Policy by C. Raja Mohan; Viking; pages 321; Rs.450.

British Foreign Policy 1874-1914: The role of India by Sneh Mahajan; Routledge; pages 264; 55.

India as an Emerging Power, edited by Sumit Ganguly; Frank Cass; pages 233; 45 (HB), 17.50 (PB).

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