India and the world

Print edition : November 13, 1999

India's declining influence as a leader of developing countries may reflect not only national and international political economy forces, but also the way in which its representatives handle the process of negotiations.


THERE was a time - not all that long ago - when India's standing in the international community of nations was very high. This stemmed not only from the obvious reasons such as the size of the population and of the economy and the country's geopolitical significance in Asia. It also reflected the respect India commanded among other developing countries, by virtue of strong and principled stands on a number of international issues as well as what was widely perceived as a genuine desire to forge unity among developing nations as a group. India thus became an important voice for the aspirations of developing countries in general, and a major spokesman in international forums.

This perception was probably strongest during the early and heady days of the Non-Aligned Movement, which reflected the dreams of some remarkable men and women (such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Josip Tito) as much as those of the governments they led. But even in the 1970s and much of the 1980s, when the political leadership did not display much in terms of an inspiring vision domestically, the foreign policy remained a source of some pride to many Indians and a source of much hope to many in the developing world.

This attribute was perhaps already beginning to unravel by the late 1980s, but in the 1990s it seems to have disappeared altogether. The collapse of the Eastern bloc may have rendered non-alignment meaningless, but it is still difficult to understand why it should also have put paid to attempts by India to forge a common position with other developing countries to protect at least some of their own interests, and made it so completely determined to curry favour with the Western powers.

Since 1998, after the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power, matters have worsened considerably in this regard, and the combination of going nuclear with the slavish subjugation to the West in matters economic, has meant that India has lost all of that earlier luminosity. Many developing countries are saddened and repelled by what now appears to be a wholly cynical attitude towards nuclear weapons and their control, and the earlier principled positions on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and other issues now sound very hollow. Similarly, the eagerness with which the government has rushed to satisfy the economic interests of the United States in particular, even when they work against the needs of Indian citizens, has reduced any credibility with other developing country governments searching for an alternative path.

Even so, there is still a sense of surprise at the Indian government's reluctance to raise issues at international forums and multilateral negotiations, and also its inability to lobby and gain international support for itself on the rare occasions when it does choose to raise any such issues. Those of us who are outside officialdom and the actual negotiating process have tended to see this as a reflection of either the specific positions held or the result of international political economy forces. But there may be a case for supposing that there is also a negative role played by the way in which our government's representatives conduct themselves at such negotiations.

Such reflections emerge from only one particular instance, and may not be generalisable. But if it is part of a more widespread pattern of behaviour, then it may not be surprising that India finds itself so unpopular at international gatherings of nations.

The occasion in question was a meeting in Bangkok called by some United Nations agencies, to review the progress (if any) in the condition of women across Asia and the Pacific after the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995. Governments of the region were represented (often, as in India's case, quite heavily) as were other independent academics and activists and members of what are now loosely called "civil society organisations". The meeting was concerned with various macro issues which have affected the condition of women, as well as the effectiveness of specific measures directed at improving these conditions.

As in many such meetings, a statement was proposed to be brought out at the end of the deliberations, summarising the discussions and setting forth the main agenda for the future in terms of the measures required of governments and other agents. And, again as in many other meetings, the statement itself tended to absorb a huge amount of time and effort on the part of a "drafting committee" which contained members of all the official delegations. This group took the better part of two days and a night to reach a consensus draft report on the proceedings.

When the draft - a lengthy 35-page document - was finally presented, at a late hour to a tired plenary group, it was found to cover much ground, ranging from issues of women's employment, poverty and illiteracy to violence and political participation. There was the recognition that attempts to improve the condition of women through specific legislation and schemes could be and were being undermined by macroeconomic processes (essentially capital mobility which reduces the bargaining power of all workers and creates unstable economic conditions in individual countries) which work in the opposite direction.

By then it would seem as if differences would have been ironed out in the long process of discussion in the drafting committee. But at the final plenary session, the Indian delegation decided to start raising objections. These objections did not relate to some of the more pressing concerns of the Indian people - or Indian women, which various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals had specifically requested the delegation to take up. Thus, the issue that was raised did not relate to the more problematic implications of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) document for the Indian people, or the food security issues which impact directly on women, or any such vital matter.

Instead, the Indian delegation chose to hold up proceedings for a considerable length of time - and in the process alienate almost everyone else present - on the following sentence: "The right of self-determination of all peoples as enunciated in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action should be considered, and where appropriate, accelerated." The Indian delegation demanded that the last phrase be removed; others pointed out that they had already agreed to it in the drafting committee; they then responded by suggesting that the proceedings of the drafting committee had not been conducted properly and they were not aware of this sentence. Despite the evident resentment their statements caused, there was no attempt at gracefully withdrawing at any point; nor did they seem to recognise that any potential problem with the formulation (as in the possible implications for Kashmir) was taken care of by the safety clause "where appropriate".

For someone new to such proceedings, what was especially disturbing was not just the ham-handed manner in which the official Indian responses were expressed, but also the reactions of other country delegations and independent observers. These ranged from irritation and resentment over the fact that the proceedings were held up on such a matter, to amusement. Apparently, according to the representatives of several other countries, such behaviour on the part of Indian delegations is nothing new, and in fact they are well-known for their ability to filibuster and fuss over what are relatively minor issues in the broader context of such meetings.

What was the message that got sent out to all the delegations representing 43 countries in Asia and the Pacific, including the many small countries and island-states for whom the issue of self-determination has been and continues to be a major element in their current struggle against imperialism? The message that certainly came across to them - and was discussed all over in the hall - is that the only thing which seems to get the Indian official delegation excited is the need to prevent the right to self-determination of peoples.

In conferences like this one, the emphasis should surely be on the important issues at hand, and the interventions should reflect a certain expertise and concern, rather than focus entirely on knee-jerk reactions on matters which are at best marginal to the substantive matter under discussion. All this may not be so important given the host of other issues which plague our government and people today. But this insignificant episode does point to an official failure to do the proper homework, define priorities according to the state of the national debate, and conduct oneself in a manner which evokes respect and sympathy rather than unnecessary hostility and ridicule.

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