Of diplomacy and democracy

Print edition : November 10, 2001

What distinguishes a statesman from a run-of-the-mill politician, especially in matters of foreign policy, in a democracy? In the context of the track record of post-Independence India's leaders, a look at the critical attributes.


ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE wrote as follows in his classic 1835 book Democracy in America, defining a problem of democratic governance that is as old as the Greeks:

"Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient. Democracy is favourable to the increase of the internal resources of a state; it diffuses wealth and comfort, promotes public spirit, and fortifies the respect for law in all classes of society; all these are advantages which have only an indirect influence over the relations which one people bears to another. But a democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience...

"The propensity that induces democracies to obey impulse rather than prudence, and to abandon mature design for the gratification of a momentary passion, was clearly seen in America on the breaking out of the French Revolution. It was then as evident to the simplest capacity as it is at the present time that the interest of the Americans forbade them to take any part in the contest which was about to deluge Europe with blood, but which could not injure their own country. But the sympathies of the people declared themselves with so much violence in favour of France that nothing but the inflexible character of Washington and the immense popularity which he enjoyed could have prevented the Americans from declaring war against England. And even then, the exertions which the austere reason of that great man made to repress the generous but imprudent passions of his fellow citizens nearly deprived him of the sole recompense which he ever claimed, that of his country's love. The majority reprobated his policy, but it was afterwards approved by the whole nation."

The problem that Tocqueville wrote about then, has become far more acute now. Public awareness has increased and the media are far more intrusive. But neither has kept pace with the growing complexity of issues of foreign policy. No country can or should, for instance, join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) without the people's support. How few of them know or can know enough to form an opinion on the issue?

The dilemma persists because it is inherent in a democracy - the volatility and power of public opinion and the weaknesses of democratic leadership. Charismatic leaders are rare. Only George Washington could have issued the Neutrality Proclamation of 1792 and saved the United States from a suicidal involvement in the Anglo-French War. America's sympathies lay with the French who had backed them in their War of Independence. Not seldom, the preference of the majority of the day is at odds with the requirements of sound policy, domestic or foreign. Not seldom an issue of foreign policy arouses the people from the slumber that is the norm, and shakes them with paroxyms of moral outrage. Few are the leaders who have the moral courage, the political skill and the intellectual equipment that are required to explain the realities to them. Having ignored the rumblings, most opt for mere survival when the crisis bursts into the open.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai in Beijing in October 1954. Nehru's standing in the Cabinet, in Parliament and among the public suffered owing to his short-sighted tactics vis-a-vis China.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The sage Walter Lippmann described this all too common situation with unconcealed disdain: "Democratic politicians have preferred to shun foresight about troublesome changes to come, knowing that the massive veto was latent, and that it would be expensive to them and to their party if they provoked it... The rule, to which there are few exceptions, is that at the critical junctures, when the stakes are high, the prevailing mass opinion will impose what amounts to a veto upon changing the course on which the government is at the time proceeding... The adversary must not be appeased. Reduce your claims on the area? No. Righteousness cannot be compromised. Negotiate a compromise peace as soon as the opportunity presents itself? No. The aggressor must be punished... The unhappy truth is that the prevailing public opinion has been destructively wrong at the critical junctures. The people have imposed a veto upon the judgments of informed and responsible officials... The mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this century. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death" (Essays in The Public Philosophy; Little Brown & Co., 1955; pp. 18-21).

One of the great intellects of his times and the founder of the school of political realism, Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau, traces the dilemma to its roots - the statesman, as distinct from the common politician, has to reckon with considerations which the populace cannot understand. Neither can the ordinary MP: "The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil. The statesman must take the long view, proceeding slowly and by detours, paying with small losses for great advantages; he must be able to temporise, to compromise, to bide his time. The popular mind wants quick results; it will sacrifice tomorrow's real benefit for today's apparent advantage.

"By a psychological paradox, the most vociferous and compromising representatives of what is least conducive to the successful conduct of foreign policy are generally politicians who in their own constituencies would not dream of acting the way they expect the framers of foreign policy to act... The daily routine of their political lives is devoid of those moral and intellectual qualities which they really admire, which to the public they pretend to possess, and which they wish they were able to practise... they make foreign policy over into a sort of fairy-land where virtue triumphs and vice is punished, where heroes fight for principle without thought of consequence, and where the knight in shining armour comes to the succour of the ravished nation, taking the villain's life even though he might in the process lose his own" (In Defence of the National Interest; Alfred A. Knopf, 1951; pp. 223-224).

Leaders have four options. One is simply to sail with the wind of public opinion and treat public opinion polls as the supreme guide. The second is to educate public opinion in the realities of the times. A British diplomat, Lord Vansittart, sharply defined this age-old problem: "How to induce the unwilling to accept the unavoidable."

Nixon said on September 28, 1958: "It is the responsibility of the leader to lead public opinion, not just to follow it. The leader must get all the facts before making a decision and then must develop support for the decision among the people by making the facts known to them." He led the people truly by pushing ahead detente with the Soviet Union and China. The third option is to mislead and corrupt public opinion - and cite the result in defence of the official stand. The leader whips up the people to a frenzy of chauvinism and defends his intransigence as obedience to the people's will. There is a stifling and sickening orthodoxy on India's foreign policy in the media - especially in the television channels - and in academia. Dissent is rare; on the fundamentals, it is rarer, still.

Morgenthau said: "Since, however, what the crowd wants is in good measure determined by what the government and the moulders of public opinion which are at its service suggest it ought to want, the government is here caught in a vicious circle of its own making. It moulds public opinion in support of a foreign policy upon which it has decided, and then invokes public opinion in justification of that policy... does not allow the truth - that is, the correct policy - to be discovered through the free interplay of diverse opinions and divergent interests. Rather the truth is assumed to be exclusively owned by a government supported by public opinion. The issue is thus settled before it is really joined" (Morgenthau; New Foreign Policy for the United States; Praeger, 1969; pp.151-152). The classic case is the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" which President Lyndon B. Johnson used to inflame public opinion, secure a Joint Resolution of Congress, and use it as a carte blanche for escalating the war in Vietnam. Morgenthau was one of the war's severest and ablest critics.

The last option is to practise deception. This is altogether different from using a calculated ambiguity to gain time in a charged situation. When, on June 4, 1958, de Gaulle told a group of rebellious colons in Algeria "Je vous ai compris.... (I have understood you)," he bought some time. He was constrained, days later, to use the words "Algerie francaise". Those who knew his style knew it left options open. This is different from telling a lie, from projecting a false image or speaking in different voices to different audiences.

Judged by these truths of enduring relevance, Indian leaders have failed as dismally in educating the people as they have in crafting a sound foreign policy. Dorothy Woodman, a genuine friend of the country, wrote: "India today seems to be the victim of three traumas: Kashmir, the Aksai Chin and poverty. To try to resolve the first two by vast military expenditure can only divert her funds and energies from the struggle against poverty... India is, in fact, faced with the alternatives of the Himalayas as one vast radar screen or the initiation of an active foreign policy to re-open talks with Pakistan and China. To settle for the present stalemate is to condone a military active frontier across Asia" (Himalayan Frontiers; The Cressett Press; p. 321). Thirty years after she wrote thus, the stalemate has congealed, with dangerous elements of nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, while there is no sign of any serious effort by India for a rapprochement with China or Pakistan. Military expenditures have soared, meanwhile.

India is frozen stiff in attitudes of old and its government is prisoner to a public opinion which successive governments systematically misled and inflamed. Opposition parties join the game espousing a yet harder line. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime is set cynically to surpass that record. The world outside is not amused at this spectacle.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's visit to China in October and then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's to India were touted as diplomatic achievements. Shortly before both were cancelled, China's Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, an astute specialist, made a sharp remark; twice, significantly to two different correspondents. "China was not sure, he suggested, if the Indian political establishment had arrived at a democratic consensus that would be required to sustain the difficult negotiations (on the boundary question)" (The Hindu, September 13). And: "I am not sure that you have reached a consensus in India on the boundary question. I am not sure of the conditions concerning 'mutual understanding and mutual accommodation' is agreed to by Indian friends" (The Hindustan Times, September 21).

Simply put - "You are just not willing and able to compromise. For, you have not prepared your public opinion for it." Would it not be a sorry reflection on Indian leadership if, nearly forty years ago, precisely such a view was expressed by China? What a record of incompetence would it reflect? But, this is what Zhou En-lai wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru on April 20, 1963: "If the Indian Government, owing to its internal and external political requirements, is not prepared to hold negotiations for the time being, the Chinese Government is willing to wait with patience" (White Paper No. IX; p.13). How and why did matters come to such a pass?

At Independence, India inherited, as the maps in two White Papers on Indian States by the Government of India (July 1948 and February 1950) showed, an "undefined" boundary right from the Sino-Indo-Afghan trijunction to the Sino-Indo-Nepali trijunction - the entire western and middle sectors - and a defined boundary, the McMahon Line, in the east. On February 12, 1951, Major R. Khating, Assistant Political Officer, took over the Tawang tract, completing India's presence right upto the Line (Major Sitaran Johri; Where India, China and Burma Meet, Thacker Spink, p.146). China did not protest. It built the Xinjiang-Tibet road from March 1956-September 1957. India protested a year later.

Meanwhile, on July 1, 1954, Nehru wrote a memo ordering a revision of the maps to show a clear line throughout "which is not open to discussion with anybody" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series; Vol. 26; p. 482). Both critics and admirers are wrong, Nehru was no "romanticist", swept away by euphoria, but a calculating man. "Certainly it is conceivable that our relations with China might worsen," he told the Ministry of External Affairs on June 18, 1954. "Of course both the Soviet Union and China are expansive" (ibid. pp 477-8). When Zhou raised the issue of Aksai Chin, on January 23, 1959, Nehru shut the door to talks asserting that no dispute existed. A map has evidentiary value if it was drawn bona fide; one manufactured with awareness of a contest is a mere claim. Zhou's circular letter of November 15, 1962 to leaders of Afro-Asian countries appended all the three maps to show that the 1954 one unilaterally altered the ones of 1948 and 1950. But the 1954 map convinced and misled the Indian citizen. He can be sent to jail under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1990 if he publishes a map which is "not in conformity" with the one of 1954. It made compromise difficult. It is important to note that Nehru wrote his memo of July 1, 1954 soon after the April 29, 1954 Sino-Indian Panchsheel Agreement on Tibet pledging respect for each other's territorial integrity. At that time, remember, the Chinese knew only of the 1950 Indian map; the 1954 agreement came only later.

Nehru was criticised, not for his hard line, but for "appeasement". As well as shutting the door to negotiations he began manipulating Parliament and the media - and fell between the stools. He could have taken both into confidence and informed them that the Army Chief Gen. K.S. Thimmayya had said, in January 1959, that Aksai Chin was of no strategic importance to India and the MEA regarded the boundary there as undefined. And moved on to a deal which Zhou offered in New Delhi in April 1960 - recognition of the McMahon Line for a Karakoram boundary in Ladakh, conceding the road to China.

Armed clashes in Longju in August and at the Kongka Pass in October 1959 rendered secrecy impossible. Nehru went to the other extreme, not to enlighten, but to mobilise public opinion to strengthen his position. Walter Crocker, Australia's High Commissioner and an ardent admirer, asked: "Why did Nehru publish the White Books? They were bound to unleash nationalist passion in India, probably to a decree which could deprive him of any leeway for negotiating" (Nehru; George Allen & Unwen, 1966; p. 105). He was referring to Nehru's practice of publishing White Papers, containing correspondence between the Prime Ministers and Notes between the Foreign Offices from September 1959 to 1963. The diplomatic process suffers once confidentiality is gone. Not being kept informed, the Opposition had become suspicious and irresponsible. "Parliament has lately become critical of Mr. Nehru's foreign policy, especially of his appeasement of China" (Joseph Frankel; The Making of Foreign Policy; OUP, 1963; p.25).

By April 1960, Nehru's standing in Cabinet, in Parliament, and the public had suffered. It was due entirely to his own short-sighted tactics. He feared compromise: "If I give them that, I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India - I will not do it." (Neville Maxwell; India's China War; Penguin p.166). His successors were no more courageous. They played with confidence-building measures (CBMs), definition of the line of actual control (LOAC) and the like. Wang Yi's remarks reflect China's shrewd assessment of their political standing in the country and their true worth as leaders.

The NDA government has gone further still. It has taken the Jan Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party line of denunciation of the Nehru-Gandhi-Rajiv Gandhi record, regardless of the damage to the national interest. Jaswant Singh claimed on October 17, 2001 that "this government has demonstrated the commitment of (sic) improving our relations with Pakistan as perhaps no other government in the last fifty years has". (Agra was, of course, "proof" of this.)

But if this was puff, on August 6, in the Lok Sabha he trashed the Tashkent and Shimla accords (Indian Express, August 9) but discreetly deleted his remarks from the record of the proceedings. In his book Defending India (1999) he retailed the libel that on independence Nehru wanted to "scrap the army. The police are good enough..." (p. 45). This on the testimony of the first C-in-C Sir Robert Lockhart whom Nehru sacked for disloyalty (vide the writer's article "Pedigree of a calumny", The Statesman, August 6-7, 1999). He attributed to Nehru himself, his summary of Gandhi's views in his Discovery of India.

Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh have embarked on a dangerous ploy. It is one thing for the government to reject the Sino-Pakistan border pact. But to attack it stridently in the Indo-Pakistan Cold War is to risk alienating China with whom relations have improved a lot. Vajpayee did so on April 11, 2000. Two days before the Agra Summit, Jaswant Singh alleged (July 12) that "the Shaksgan Valley of the State of Jammu and Kashmir has been illegally and wrongly ceded by Pakistan to China". On August 12, came China's angry rejoinder. Is this how a responsible government should behave in a democracy on an issue that touches two disputes, Kashmir and the border?

In truth, Pakistan only wrote off claims on old British maps which Nehru himself had publicly rejected. It was China which ceded 750 square miles of administered territory to Pakistan (vide the writer's article "Lessons for India", Frontline, January 27, 1997). Dennis Kux's book Disenchanted Allies records how and why this came about.

China acted reluctantly. On May 16, 1959, its Ambassador Pan Tsu-li told the Foreign Secretary that it could not fight on two fronts: "Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts. Is it not so? If it is, here then lies the meeting point of our two sides." On May 23, Subrimal Dutt scolded the Ambassador for breach of "diplomatic usage". The draft was prepared by Nehru (Subrimal Dutt, With Nehru in the Foreign Office; Minerva, 1977; p.155).

Now read Kux's record: In late 1959, Ayub signalled to Beijing his interest in demarcating the Sino-Pakistani border in northern Kashmir. The Pakistani leader hoped to avoid India's experience of tensions over conflicting frontier claims. At first, the Chinese turned a deaf ear and made no response to Ayub's initiative... Negotiations began in Beijing in May 1962 but made no progress. The respective Chinese and Pakistani border claims were far apart. Neither side was ready at this point to put a serious counter proposal on the table..." On December 26, came an announcement that a border agreement had been concluded.

"According to Pakistani diplomat Agha Shahi, at the time in charge of China at the Foreign Ministry and later his country's foreign secretary and foreign minister, the border negotiations had stalled almost immediately after they had begun in Beijing in May 1962. When a study of the available records suggested that neither Pakistan nor China had a strong legal or historical basis to support any particular boundary claim, Shahi proposed to his superiors that Pakistan seek what seemed the most rational frontier - the watershed of the Karakoram range - and also try to obtain five hundred square miles beyond the watershed that the people of Hunza traditionally had used for salt and grazing land. Foreign Minister Bogra and President Ayub gave their blessing to the idea and in December 1962... Pakistan Ambassador to China put the proposal on the table. According to Shahi, Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Yi and Premier Zhou Enlai agreed on the understanding that the Pakistanis were making a firm and final offer, not just bargaining. The Chinese, according to Shahi, later admitted that they also 'didn't know where the boundary is because no claim is conclusive'. In territorial terms, the border accord was a good bargain for Pakistan.... It resolved a potentially troublesome frontier dispute..."

Clearly, China was reluctant to talk to them. Pakistan learnt lessons from Nehru's blunders. China wanted a "firm and final offer". The accord was based on the Karakoram watershed which is what Zhou offered to Nehru in New Delhi in April 1960 - both lines were leased on the British offer of March 14, 1899. It can still form the basis for a settlement provided that Indian leaders demonstrate the moral courage and intellectual integrity to recognise, at least in their own minds, the mistakes we made; the political skill to mould a domestic consensus; and a democratic awareness of the need to educate public opinion about the need for compromise.

These qualities will be even more necessary if the Kashmir issue is ever to be settled. As on the border, a lot that Nehru said was said in order to mobilise public opinion to ensure domestic political support. He then cited public opinion as an obstacle to compromise.

It made no sense to harp on Pakistan's aggression in 1947 once he had concluded accords on plebiscite after the event (from 1948-1953) Nor did the accord envisage withdrawal of Pakistan's troops completely unconditionally before India withdrew its troops. Vol. 7 of SW JN, published in 1988, contains (p. 297) an authoritative clarification by Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright's father, on behalf of the U.N. Commission. "The Prime Minister felt that it was faulty in requiring the simultaneous withdrawal of the two armies inasmuch as the Pakistan Army was there illegally. In reply, Mr. Korbel explained that, as drafted, this provision provided not for the simultaneous withdrawal of the two armies, but rather that the Indian forces would begin withdrawal after being advised by the Commission that Pakistan forces had begun withdrawal. This requirement that Indian troops begin their withdrawal before Pakistan force had completed their withdrawal from the State, he said, was arrived at to meet Pakistan fears of an attack by Indian forces and to make it easier for Pakistan to accept the withdrawal of their troops." Nehru himself said as much to Krishna Menon on August 18, 1948.

The public was given a different impression. For decades it was told that since Pakistan had not withdrawn its troops, the accords had collapsed. In truth, it had only to begin to withdraw, first; India was to withdraw "the bulk"of its troops thereafter; whereupon Pakistan's men would quit completely. Nehru never yielded on what constitutes the "bulk" and rejected every single U.N. proposal from 1949 to 1953.

In 2001 all this is history. We have a new situation which demands diplomatic creativity of high order, not political rhetoric. None should be surprised at the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's remarks in Islamabad on October 16, to quote the official American text, "the Kashmir issue is central to the (Indo-Pakistan) relationship" and of the need "to accommodate the aspirations of the Kashmiri people". On May 15, well before the World Trade Centre attack, he spoke to a Senate Committee of "a peaceful and just solution to the problem of Kashmir". Indeed on October 4, 2000, in his address to Parliament President Putin also urged settlement of "the Kashmir issue... on the basis of a compromise."

Not one power of any consequence supports India's stand on Kashmir being a domestic matter or on the border dispute with China. No government dares the grim truths to the people - a deeply alienated Valley; a critical world opinion and wasteful confrontation with a neighbour aggrieved at the breach of the plebscite accord. Those who hold, like a respected former Prime Minister, that only the army in Pakistan and the BJP in India can settle Kashmir miss an important factor - the BJP is slave to the RSS and is out to use Indo-Pakistan relation for domestic ends. Witness: the unprecedented personal abuse of President Musharraf by Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh for a whole fortnight from July 28. At Agra they rejected the formulation in Para one of the draft; "A settlement of the Kashmir issue would pave the way for the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan" (The Times of India, July 21). India had no objection to the rest. Having yielded to L.K. Advani and the RSS on this, the Prime Minister and Jaswant Singh went to town accusing Pakistan of making Kashmir "a Central issue". The Agra draft did not. Its formulation was much milder than Colin Powell's. Imagine the scenario that would have followed success at Agra. But ineptitude in diplomacy was followed by a frenzied propaganda blitz in which, as ever, several in the print and electric media lent their services, abdicating their duty to the public. Democratic government was undermined and the diplomatic process was debased. The Indian Express editorially referred (October 13) to "the Pakistan-centric manner in which India's concern" on Afghanistan is expressed." The game should not be conceived as checkmating Pakistan."

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor