Foreign affairs gone local

Non-Alignment 2.0 is a policy primer for the Congress’ designated heir apparent, an attempt to inject his candidature with a cerebral gloss

Earlier this month, New Delhi witnessed the release of a quasi-official report entitled “Non-Alignment 2.0”. The report attempted to set out the broad contours of a foreign policy doctrine that would indicate carrying forward the contested legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru and, for good measure, his foremost gladiator V.K. Krishna Menon.
Regardless of the understandable wariness of some members of the committee to be typecast and slotted into a compartment, the driving force behind Non-Alignment 2.0 was explicitly political. First, it was aimed as a soft answer to those, notably in the Congress and Left parties, who have aired their misgivings of a definite pro-US tilt in foreign policy. Second — and this is being spoken of openly by members of India’s rarefied “strategic community” — Non-Alignment 2.0 is said to provide an intellectual foundation for a post-Manmohan Singh approach to foreign policy by the Congress establishment.

It was, to put it bluntly, aimed as a policy primer for the Congress’ designated heir apparent, an attempt to inject his candidature with a cerebral gloss.
According to the report, a future policy of India must be centred on three “core objectives”: “To ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its development goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a just and equitable world order.”
It is unlikely that too many people will find the proposed thrust towards “strategic autonomy” and “national power” objectionable, even if they feel that linking common sense to the chequered history of Nehruvian non-alignment is gratuitous. That India must take decisions based on enlightened self-interest, rather than ideological grandstanding, is obvious but a point worth re-stating. Equally, it is crucial to emphasise that any visionary scheme to right all the accumulated wrongs of the world cannot be contemplated unless India lives up to its potential as an emerging economic power.
Perhaps India needs to remind itself that the preachiness of Nehru and Menon were often seen as presumptuous because New Delhi’s “national power” was purely notional. It had become a euphemism for sloth, incompetence and flawed decisions based on “ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere”. A country that led a “ship-to-mouth” existence in the 1960s had no credible basis to pontificate on the immorality of US policy during the Cold War. Nor is the historical baggage associated with “national power” enhanced by the revelation in the Mitrokhin Archive that there was a queue of ministers in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet outside the Soviet embassy offering confidential government papers.
The past history of Indian non-alignment, it is clear, does not inspire automatic confidence in the ability of this doctrine to serve as a guiding light for the challenges of the 21st century. But even if, for the sake of argument, we are able to disentangle historical baggage from the principles set out by the authors of Non-Alignment 2.0, a recognition of ground realities is necessary.
Till the Nehruvian edifice came crashing down following the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an unstated national consensus that drove Indian foreign policy. The consensus had as much to do with the dominant position of the Congress in domestic politics as with intellectual acceptance of Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s legacy — even the short-lived Janata government didn’t deviate from the consensus. However, today, despite the political class’ apparent lack of interest in diplomacy, Indian foreign policy has become far more contested.
The most significant impediment to the projection of “national power” overseas is the emergence of regional interests in foreign policy. In the past few months, the assertion of regional power in a coalition led to the derailment of the Teesta waters accord with Bangladesh and a commitment by the Prime Minister to vote for a resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission condemning the excesses of the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians. In the Indian context, the assertion of regional interests in decisions governing foreign policy may seem unique. However, evolved democracies such as the US — with a diverse, multi-ethnic population — have a rich experience of keeping one eye on domestic politics in matters affecting foreign policy. The vocal Irish lobby, the powerful Jewish lobby and the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban émigré lobby in Florida have traditionally exercised their hold over the US state department. To these can be added commercial lobbies and, in recent times, the vocal human rights industry that played an important role in shaping US attitudes towards the Balkans, Libya and, now, Sri Lanka.
The problem with India is that the assertion of “national power” has been a rarefied, elite preoccupation and insulated from the larger political process. The mandarins of the ministry of external affairs have been traditionally insensitive to domestic political impulses. They have seen diplomacy in a way reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna and the Congress of Berlin in the 19th century. Their inability to handle democracy contributed to the mismatch of perceptions of Bangladesh with Kolkata. Likewise, in the case of Sri Lanka, there was inadequate groundwork to secure an all-party consensus.
What Indian foreign policy needs is an attitudinal shift. Diplomacy is increasingly becoming linked to the political process and the “strategic community” is unprepared to cope with it.

The writer is a senior journalist

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