Illusions of Indian foreign policy

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

Why Indian foreign policy at this point is wrong on virtually all major counts, and what India needs to do about it.

IN the immediate aftermath of Pokhran-II, this writer was perhaps the first to point out that the explosions were likely not only to evoke a commensurate response from Pakistan but also to change nuclear equations on the Asian continent as a whole, and I had predicted that the American sanctions would be largely ceremonial and short-lived, soon giving way to a strategic Indo-U.S. Sinophobic alliance.

Even before those explosions, the then Defence Minister George Fernandes had publicly declared that China was the "main threat" to India. After the explosions, Prime Minister Vajpayee had found in Bill Clinton the one world leader to whom he owed an explanation, and his secret communication, which was duly leaked for good effect, had singled out China as the source of the threat that justified the Pokhran blasts. Influential security analysts like K. Subrahmanyam have time and again urged the Indian government to recognise that India and the U.S. have common interests in the nuclear field and that China was not only the "main threat" to India but also the main source of nuclear proliferation and instability in the world. In context, therefore, it has always seemed odd to me that the South Asian nuclear mess is discussed in the Indian media almost exclusively in relation to Pakistan. In reality, the Indo-Pakistan nuclear rivalry is lethal enough but Pakistan also serves in the Indian public pronouncements as something of a foil for larger ambitions and shifts in policy.

The details of neither the ten rounds of Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbot talks during the Clinton administration nor the package of agreements on defence cooperation which India's Foreign-cum-Defence Minister claims to have brought back from Washington last month have been shared with Parliament or with leaders of some of the major Opposition parties. Nevertheless, we have been told often enough that a "strategic partnership" is developing between India and the United States. Well, against whom? Those who purport to be surprised by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's turnabout on the issue of the U.S. plans to erect the National Missile Defence (NMD), as if it was something that was done impulsively, have only themselves to blame. The writing has been on the wall for some time.

Having said that, we should immediately add that this enthusiastic support for NMD is a watershed in the ongoing transformation of Indian policy and will, in and of itself, have far-reaching consequences.

First, India has in this instance acted as a client more loyal to the king than the king himself. Key tests related to the technologies of the planned NMD have failed in the U.S. itself, where some of the key governmental agencies have also issued studies warning of the massive disruptive effects of the projected NMD delpoyment around the globe. Nor is there any kind of concrete blueprint as to what will actually get deployed and what cuts in offensive weapons will there actually be, which the Bush Administration is promising in order to sell the NMD to friend and foe alike. In context, then, Indian officials are themselves at a loss to explain what it is their government is endorsing so enthusiastically. Seema Mustafa tells a shockingly delicious story (The Asian Age, May 5) where journalists go from one official to another seeking explanations and finally reach Jaswant Singh himself, who calmly tells them to wait for Richard Armitage who, he says, "will brief you on Government of India's position." Not since the 1960s has even the Pakistan government so abjectly waited for American officials to explain Pakistani policies to Pakistani citizens.

This is the first bizarre consequence: the emergence of India as the most abject of clients precisely at a time when the same government is also announcing the emergence of India as a global power. Second, there is India's utter isolation on this issue. Not even one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies - nor Japan or Taiwan, which are projected as the beneficieries of the parallel programme of East Asian Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) - have endorsed NMD, partly because one does not quite know what it is and partly because of the intrinsic defects of whatever has so far surfaced. As we shall explain below, this willingness to isolate itself on the issue of NMD seems to be related, in an equally bizarre fashion, with hope that the U.S. will help India break its other two existing isolations: on the issue of its own military and nuclear ambitions, and on its continued refusal to open a meaningful dialogue on the Kashmir issue, notably with Pakistan.

Third, this isolation will have its worst consequences not only in relation to Pakistan, about which perhaps no one in the Indian Establishment much cares, but also in relation, specifically, to China, Russia and countries allied with Russia. India claims that its enthusiasm for NMD is not at the expense of Russia or China; the U.S. says the same thing about its own designs. The client shall be believed just about as much as the king. The NMD/TMD combine is the most aggressive weapons system envisaged in some three decades, undermining the whole history of efforts for the curtailment of nuclear weapons undertaken during these decades.

Meanwhile, the forward deployment of TMD in East Asia itself takes us back to the moment of the creation of NATO, now for the Pacific and at a much higher level of technology. Neither China nor Russia can compromise on this and any real move toward implementing NMD will bring them closer than they have been in half a century. India would then be irreparably alienated from both and it will be very difficult for future governments to disentangle themselves from this historic re-alignment.

Fourth, any serious work toward making even parts of the NMD/TMD regime operational will necessarily mean China's greatly enhanced efforts to improve the quality and quantity of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. This will mean that India's relative inferiority shall in fact increase, which then means that, so long as India puts itself in a camp hostile to China, it will either enter a financially ruinous arms race on the Asian continent or become increasingly more dependent for its strategic defence on the U.S. A losing race and increasing dependence may indeed coincide. Will TMD then be extended to the Bay of Bengal and the Red Fort, much as Pakistan had once submitted itself to American military bases?

Fifth, India will have isolated itself not only from Pakistan but also key countries to the west of it, such as Iran, Iraq or Syria. Under no circumstances and under no foreseeable regime shall Iran, for example, allow itself to be drawn into America's orbit on this issue, and to the extent that India gets embroiled in it even oil pipelines can become just so many pipe dreams. Similarly, India will also have isolated itself on this key global issue from such larger countries of the Third World as Brazil and South Africa which had the nuclear capacity but opted not to become nuclear weapons powers and would now hardly relish a renewed arms race. Jaswant Singh has the audacity to argue that we are supporting NMD because it will lead to the U.S. cutting its arsenal of offensive weapons and thus to future progress in disarmament.

How much of that offensive capacity is going to be cut, and when? No one knows. What we do know is that Bush Jr. is the most rightwing President the U.S. has had in recent memory; more closely aligned with the Republican Far Right than even his father or the father's mentor, Ronald Reagan; and surrounded by the most hawkish advisers imaginable. It would be stupid to buy a used car from him, let alone a nuclear policy.

WHY this haste then, at this formidable price? There is first the Bharatiya Janata Party's bellicose vision of India as a world power but, ridden with a country where a third of the population is illiterate and starving, and whose own industrial capacity is not much more than that of a medium-sized West European country, this wholly unrealistic vision then gets attached to such things as possession of some nuclear toys, a permanent seat in the Security Council, some flattering references by the great superpower to India as a "partner," and so on. Second, there is the historic tie between business affairs and military affairs. The hope is that as India accepts the U.S. military design and plays the role of "the most allied ally" (as Pakistan was called in the 1950s), more U.S. business will flow into India. Conversely, the more business concessions are granted to the superpower, the more it is expected to include the client in its strategic designs. Unilateral support of the NMD here, some superprofits for Enron there - and you may get both the Security Council seat and a reciprocal acceptance of your own nuclear ambitions.

But then, we also expect the U.S. to do for us in Kashmir what we cannot do for ourselves: get Pakistan to stop on its side of the Line of Control (LoC) the small jehadi squads who seem to become invincible as soon as they arrive on this side, despite half a million Indian military personnel. All of which brings you to the issue of Pakistan. It is highly significant that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage had barely landed in Delhi when Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongi touched down in Islamabad. General Musharraf promptly announced his opposition to NMD and complete identity of views with the Chinese on this matter.

The reversal of roles could not have been more graphically palpable. Precisely at the moment when India had chosen to act as America's abject client, Pakistan was announcing its independence of the superpower and its commitment to a policy it shares with all its neighbours, except India. The immediate consequence of India's ill-advised policy is that, despite China's great anger at the jehadi infiltration into western China from Afghanistan, China and Pakistan are going to close ranks and Chinese assistance to Pakistan is likely to increase in all fields including the military field. Meanwhile, if India can hope to get American approval for its own highly sophisticated missile and space programmes in lieu of its support for NMD, China can hardly be faulted for upgrading Pakistan's missile technology and aircraft industry.

Pakistan thus turns out to be not the country that is isolated in its own environment on this key issue. It undoubtedly faces great isolation in virtually the whole world, even horror and loathing in many places, owing to its support for the Taliban and its collusion in the spread of jehadi groups across Central Asia. But that has to do rather little with any global support for India. To the more complex case of the jehadi infiltration into India we shall return in a moment. Suffice it to say that on other issues Pakistan is not nearly as isolated as we presume. Many people find plausible its assertion that on the nuclear issue as well as on the matter of defence expenditures generally it has acted with relative restraint. It argues, for example, that its nuclear programme has always been defensive in nature; that it was only after India had already carried out its first Pokhran test in 1974 that it even started putting together a coherent nuclear programme of its own; that its capacity remained limited and inferior throughout; that it was only in response to Pokhran-II that it felt constrained to carry out its own tests; and that India's nuclear and missile technologies are superior and financial outlays for improvement in these fields incomparably greater. It also argues that India already had very considerable all-round superiority in conventional warfare capabilities even before Pakistan retaliated with its own tests but India has then gone on to increase its military budget first by 28 per cent and then by 14 per cent in the last two years. Even though that initial 28 per cent increase in India was itself equal to Pakistan's entire defence outlay, the latter did not try to come up with any considerable increases in its outlays and instead concentrated on cutting the budgetary deficit, which it has done this year. Finally, it argues, that given India's vast superiority in conventional warfare capability, its impressive lead in the nuclear field and its continued expanded investment in defence outlays, missile development and so on, it would be impossible for Pakistan to limit its nuclear option unilaterally. This is not an implausible argument, even though it hardly indicates any way forward.

No one approves of the Pakistan government's refusal to curb effectively the jehadi culture within its own territory or its continued use of jehadi squads in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, the Pakistan government is roundly castigated for these policies by liberal and progressive opinion at home and abroad. However, there is also a widespread perception that no definitive end to jehadi violence in Jammu and Kashmir is possible without a brisk movement forward in the peace process leading to a resolution of the problem. It is on this larger issue that India is internationally far more isolated than Pakistan, and far more so than we recognise. Every country worth its name has repeatedly called upon both India and Pakistan to open a dialogue on the issue of Kashmir with a view to resolving the problem. In other words, they may or may not recognise the Kashmir problem as one of national self-determination, with an option for independence, but they all recognise the bilateral nature of the problem, and hence the status of Kashmir as a disputed territory and the one place in the subcontinent where there is no international boundary.

In this context, then, India's refusal to talk to Pakistan is widely perceived as being unreasonable intransigence and General Musharraf's cleverly worded offer to meet the Indian Prime Minister "anywhere, any time" is beginning to be perceived as a refreshing contrast. Nor does his insistence that Kashmir is the "core issue" seem as ludicrous to others as we make it out to be.

Meanwhile, the much-advertised 'peace process' has so far failed to take hold, and the best that can be said is that it is better to have one than none at all. The initial announcement of the Ramzan ceasefire had an electrifying effect. Then it transpired that it was really not a proper ceasefire but an order to observe calibrated restraint, which has been amply violated from the start by the state-controlled police and paramilitary forces as well as the Border Security Force (BSF). The result of this peculiar combination of restraint and punctual high-handedness has been that soon after an initial phase of great euphoria the Kashmiri populace settled back into the familiar life of dread and alienation, while the corpses kept mounting. The unilateral 'ceasefire', one had assumed, was an interim measure designed to bring about a bilateral one, as soon as possible. But for that the government had to have in mind clear initiatives on the domestic as well as external fronts to engage the adversaries actively. But there were none.

The State Autonomy Report which had been duly passed by the State Assembly and which Farooq Abdullah, a partner of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), had presented to a government in which his son was a Minister, had already been rejected brusquely and out of hand, without even getting tabled in Parliament. So the Chief Minister of the State was obviously not an interlocuter. This undermined the position of those who were willing to settle for anything less than full secession. Nor were those influential elements within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) to be included among the interlocuters who were perceived as being much too close to the Pakistan government - which they indeed were. But if one is not willing to talk to even the proxies of the adversary, then how is one to address that whole spectrum of opinion within Jammu and Kashmir? 'All' should have actually meant all - above all those who represent the most extreme position that all of Jammu and Kashmir be amalgamated to Pakistan. Demanding that such elements be kept out of interlocution implied the wish to use the less unfriendly elements as instruments of one's own policy. New Delhi thus undermined, inadvertently or otherwise, the position of men like Abdul Ghani Lone - and, by the same token, ended up bolstering the reputation of men like Syed Ali Geelani and extremists of his ilk. All this, even before any negotiations actually began!

So much for the strictly domestic dimension. The same hamhandedness has been there in the conduct of foreign policy. If New Delhi rather than the APHC itself is to determine who can or cannot go in its delegation to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), then why announce, before settling on a specific list of names, that you will allow a delegation to go in the first place? Then the External Affairs Ministry seems to have stepped in, with the bizarre argument that allowing any delegation at all to travel and meet whomsoever they wish to meet in POK amounts to recognising them as representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

The logic was faulty twice over. On the one hand, the fact that the Indian government was putting so much store by its impending negotiations with the Hurriyat while spurning even the elected Chief Minister showed that New Delhi itself had recognised it as representing at least a significant cross-section of the people in the Valley. On the other hand, allowing people to travel and talk to others hardly bestows upon them any representative status - unless you yourself say so. Indeed, by travelling on Indian passports they were implicitly recognising themselves as Indian citizens, regardless of the rhetoric they might use for public consumption.

This, then, was further complicated by the explicit refusal to talk to Pakistan either directly, or through the intermediation of Indian Kashmiris, or through foreign third parties. This, however, was the formal position. In reality, of course, everyone was talking to everyone else, on all kinds of "tracks", domestic as well as international. The intransigence of the formal position meant, in any case, that no one took any final responsibility for what got said, and nothing that got said could be presumed as the basis for saying or doing something else. These parallel channels are normal and necessary in any process of intra-national negotiations; but they have to have alongside them something that truly is parallel. In the absence of any substantial Track I, those noble souls on Track II who want something good to come out of their exertions appear to be crying out in the wilderness while the bulk of that same Track II seems to have become simply a self-reproducing multi-million dollar bonanza for those who make a profession out of the production of position papers, 'feelers', rounds and rounds of talks and more talk: the high-priced chatter of the go-between.

BE that as it may, after some five months of the willed inertia that followed the dramatic Ramzan 'ceasefire', poor K.C. Pant has been called upon to produce some excitement. It is unclear, however, what his brief as a 'negotiator' is, beyond submitting regular reports to those who have appointed him. He is to talk to all and sundry, but who in particular and in what policy frame? In the beginning of this mission seems to be prefigured its end: while he talks to non-entities and worse - the tired mainstream politicians looking for a photo-opportunity; the corrupt and irrelevant Shabir Shah - the 'ceasefire', such as it was, has been withdrawn, all but in name. The policy towards Farooq Abdullah, the APHC, Pakistan, Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC remains the same. Then why transport Pant so far from his home? He will probably want to come back by the time the cold weather sets in.

The derangements of Pakistan's domestic politics and foreign policy need to be written about separately. The utterly false premise of Indian policies at the end of a low-intensity warfare it has been fighting for ten years, and even as the loyalty of the people of the Valley keeps slipping out of its hands, is that it need offer no new solutions to the problem and no compromises beyond its well-known positions because the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism is such and India's own loyalty to them is now so extensive that the Americans will come and force Pakistan to give India what it cannot achieve for itself. In other words, Pakistan shall be forced by the Americans to withdraw the jehadis even though India has failed to defeat them on its own territory.

This is fallacious on several counts. First, Pakistan's own argument has a certain degree of palusibility: that (a) the state there is too brittle, and the jehadis are so deeply entrenched in civil society itself that those groups are not so easy to command and control; but also (b) that India is so little interested in finding a solution that even the pretense of a 'peace process' is only a response to unmanageable militant activity, so that India would have no incentive for serious talks if the jehadi elements were to disappear. In other words, the jehadis are not entirely under their control but what control they do have they see no reason to exercise until India is willing to open a direct dialogue. This argument passes muster with foreign powers, including the U.S., because they are all advocating direct dialogue, which Pakistan wants and India does not want.

Second, India is of course fast emerging as America's "most allied ally" (and, unlike Israel, a most abject one) and the U.S. undoubtedly abhors Pakistan's present policies in Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, eve though the U.S. wants Pakistan to change its policies drastically it cannot dispense with Pakistan altogether because the latter has a very important role to play in that critical region. Under Jaswant Singh's myopic shepharding, India is closing its own options much faster than the U.S. has done or will do. It will not help India unless India help itself. The result is for all to see. While India is willing so breezily to support the NMD and thus isolate itself in the world in ways that have drastic long-term consequences, the U.S. will not oblige India by coercing a potentially useful Pakistan into withdrawing even a bunch of jehadis from what is from the U.S. perspective a merely local conflict.

Indian foreign policy is wrong on virtually all major counts. India needs to do at least four things. First, it needs to open a serious bilateral dialogue with Pakistan, which is its neighbour, adversary and a destabilising force in the polity. To think that adversaries shall just melt away because we do not talk to them is being foolish. Second, India must negotiate with the major political tendencies in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh with an open mind, in the spirit of the times when the most far-reaching democratic demands are becoming the norm and people are often ready to fight for their rights; at least some of the Kashmiri boys do watch television and they do see Palestinian boys throwing stones on Israeli military convoys. Other countries can help pressure Pakistan to accept a reasonable solution if India finds one that satisfies the Kashmiri people on the one hand and which the international community can consider fair.

Third, India should learn to live more amicably in its own real environment, with the weaker neighbours inside South Asia as well as the much stronger neighbour across the Himalayas. Countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) shall be pleased if India learns to lead without dominating, and China shall more than reciprocate - for selfish reasons if not for noble ones - since its real long-term conflict is not with India but with the U.S. Fourth, India must understand that its future lies with its own kind and with medium-sized powers outside the NATO orbit, not with the colonial and imperial powers. Russia, China and India constitute a natural bloc of second-tier technological and economic powers, vast in territory and population, geographically contiguous, rich in natural resources and technically skilled personnel. This can be the natural counterweight to the globalising capital centred in the imperial West and Japan. If such a bloc were to start emerging, other larger economies of the Third World such as Brazil and South Africa, not to speak of segments of what once was the non-aligned movement, would find an alternative pole of attraction.

A re-alignment of Indian foreign policy in terms of these concentric circles would make it easier for India to pursue a consistent policy of economic nationalism, much as China is trying to pursue one all by itself. But there are two preconditions. India must start by making peace at home and with its immediate neighbour, in a spirit of generosity. And, India must genuinely believe that there actually is an alternative to American hegemony, that the very survival of Indian independence rests on such an alternative, and then act accordingly.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment