Dr Singh, silence is not always golden

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his entourage returned on August 31 after attending the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Iran had sweetened the Indian attendance by offering a bilateral visit, a day before the summit, to enable the Prime Minister to fulfil a commitment in the Tehran and New Delhi declarations of 2001 and 2003 enjoining annual exchange of visits at the head of state/government level. The Indian return visit was overdue for nine years.

Two arguments have been advanced explaining the Prime Minister’s travel. One being legacy related as Nehru was NAM’s founding father, even though the Cold War, its raison d’être, folded in 1990. Countering this, TV hosts enquired how the Prime Minister could be away for four days as the Coalgate issue worsened the stand-off in Parliament. Two, the Prime Minister could visit Tehran as US withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 unfolds an uncertain game, in which Iran expands Indian strategic options. Additionally, India can hardly ignore a grouping of 120 countries — two-thirds of the United Nations membership — as most of them share Indian concerns on global issues like climate change, trade, agriculture etc. The issue, however, can be differently framed. How does India engage a movement that has got radicalised in recent decades, particularly as India itself has moved into closer engagement with the US and its Western allies against whom NAM seems to be tilting in a Don Quixote-like fashion?
There were two options available to India. Moralise on the inequities of the existing global politico-economic order, created by the victors of the Second World War post-1945. This rabble-rousing is supposed to burnish Indian credentials with the largest bloc at the UN. This also presupposes that on issues/disputes involving members non-prescriptive positions are propounded in the interest of unity. Alternatively India could start adopting a new narrative that was reflective of Indian graduation towards major power status and thus its integration into the global governance system. Unfortunately India missed such a transition.
Three important issues on the table were: the civil war in Syria, the Iranian nuclear stand-off and the future of Afghanistan. Iran tried to defend the Syrian government, demonstrate that the UN sanctions against it were ineffective and even illegitimate and utilised its geographical position to woo India by offering access from outside the Gulf via Chabahar Port to Afghanistan and Central Asia. It was using the NAM chair to break out of its sanction-ridden isolation.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, on a breakthrough visit to Iran, a first since the Islamic revolution of 1979, did not mince words on Syria. Calling it a revolution akin to the one that has swept Tunisia, Libya and his own country, he turned the spotlight on an issue that Iran was attempting to paper over. In the process he carved out for himself a rising profile in the Arab world, dented since Egypt’s 1977 peace treaty with Israel. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon surprised his hosts as indeed his detractors, who had wanted him to stay away, by openly challenging the Iranian supreme leader’s diatribe against the United Nations, who had dubbed it unjust and even illegal. He also questioned Iranian reasoning on the nuclear issue, which emphasises their right to civilian nuclear energy, ignoring their years of clandestine nuclear work, which has led to the trust deficit. Unlike them, Dr Singh missed an opportunity to rise above the dust and gore of summitry to articulate a clear Indian vision on these issues, and that India recognised its new status as a responsible stakeholder in a rebalancing of global order.
On the nuclear issue Dr Singh should have seized the opening provided by Ayatollah Khamenei’s remark on elimination of nuclear weapons to advocate global nuclear disarmament, emphasising that India was a reluctant nuclear-weapon state, but with the caveat that even state signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, i.e. Iran, must abide by its letter and spirit. This would
have placed India in equidistance to the quarrelling antagonists on the Iranian nuclear question.
As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, with stated desire for permanence, Dr Singh should have said that while reform of the UN is overdue, it cannot be tantamount to denunciation of the organisation per se. Silence is not always golden, either in Tehran to check institution bashing or in New Delhi on the Coalgate issue.
Finally, on Syria, India persisted with homilies on a Syrian-led solution when the Syrian government led by an ethnic minority, having unleashed unmitigated violence on its own people, is obviously incapable of either a win or a compromise. The Syrian Prime Minister in a press interview on the sidelines of NAM pointed fingers at Qatar and Saudi Arabia as the villains. Thus the Syrian imbroglio can spill over to the Gulf, which is critical for India for energy, trade and remittances. Dr Singh should have sought immediate cessation of hostilities, dialogue and NAM intercession, even by providing peace-keepers.
Before Iran, Egypt and Cuba chaired the NAM. The next one named is Venezuela, whose President Hugo Chavez is openly anti-US. If India has to be an active associate then it must guide the movement away from the hands of latter-day Don Quixotes. Otherwise, to revert to Dr Singh’s favourite pastime of quoting Urdu poetry, Mirza Ghalib’s words may be prophetic:
“Rau mein hai raksh-e-umr kahaan dekhiye thhamey
Na haath bagh par hai na pa hai rakaab mein
(Life hurtles on, unmindful of where it shall pause
Neither the reins are held, nor feet in stirrups alas!).”

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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