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Fear of public backlash restricts foreign policy

By Suhasini Haidar
May 17, 2010 12:50 IST
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The space for India to engage other countries is shrinking and hardening, primarily because post-Sharm El Sheikh, we have a leadership that worries about the public backlash all the time, says Suhasini Haidar

There are several reasons I wear the tri-colour around my wrist. It's a rubber band with the national flag, and the blue Ashoka Chakra on it. First, I love national symbols -- the anthem, the flag; watching the President or prime minister's convoy drive past with the outriders bearing the national colours, all make my heart swell.

The latest reason: it makes for a great show-stopper line in arguments on India's foreign policy. For example, when discussing talks with Pakistan, I am often asked questions like, "How can you trust the Pakistanis after all they have done? Have you forgotten 26/11? Which side are you on?" At that point I show them the band and say: "Ok, I am wearing the tri-colour, now that we've got my patriotism out of the way, can we have a real debate please?"

Most of those arguments, surprisingly, are with fellow journalists, who are supposed to be more liberal than most, and with diplomats, who should be employing the softer line. But instead, increasingly, the space for India to engage other countries is shrinking and hardening, primarily because post-Sharm El Sheikh, we have a leadership that worries about the public backlash all the time, and because the two communities who should be tasked with preparing the ground for engagement --the ministry of external affairs and the media -- are instead drawing red lines.

The problem was in evidence again at Thimphu, Bhutan, with speculation over whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani would meet. Up to 24 hours before the meeting, officials refused to confirm that there would be one. Now, South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation is a very tight grouping of countries -- the eight South Asian leaders that meet are either direct neighbours, or neighbours of neighbours. As a result, all countries plan bilateral meetings around this event, and India's and Pakistan's prime ministers doing the same would be the norm, rather than the exception.

Even in 2002, when the two countries had armies staring at each other after the Parliament attack, and they had practically shut down their missions in Delhi and Islamabad, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan found a way to meet and talk at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. While the world watched that intensely awkward handshake between General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, behind the scenes foreign ministers Jaswant Singh and Sartaj Aziz were trying to discuss a way out of the impasse. And yet, predictably, nobody would admit to it officially. When we reported the foreign minister's secret meeting, a furious diplomat called me, and others who did, a 'Pakistani plant'. (A curious botanical specie, I felt, akin to the Pakistani omelette, which when examined closely, isn't that different from an Indian masala omelette.)

But that way of doing things hasn't really been finessed over the years. At Sharm El Sheikh last year, we were told there would be a meeting, but nothing substantive was expected. In Thimphu, official briefings a week earlier indicated there was little chance of a meeting. Each time, the underwhelming expectation leads to a cry of protest later. Each time, precious time for preparation and setting the domestic stage is wasted in denials and a dread of recrimination of the 'anti-national' kind.

That's true across the border too. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is now facing heat over the issue of water, for making the perfectly sound argument that Pakistan's problem is one of wastage, and if India violates the Indus treaty, there is a mechanism to address that. Already, editorials are castigating him. "It is both shocking and strange Pakistan's foreign mMinister is pleading the case of India," said The Nation. Sell-out, national outrage, public mood: all words that haunt anyone trying to make a rational case.

On the Indian side, though, the malaise is spreading beyond our relations with Pakistan. Last month I was baffled by the fierce opposition a group of five speakers including myself faced when suggesting at a talk that the time had come for a turn in relations with China. All of us were members of different delegations just returned from Beijing, and had come to a similar conclusion -- that for several reasons, China wants to re-engage India, and this could translate into opportunities for India.

"It seems you were all taken in by the Chinese," railed a former diplomat. "Have you forgotten 1962? Why did none of you ask them tough questions on the stapled visas?" he demanded. As per my new operating procedure, I wanted to politely proffer my tri-colour band, but desisted out of fear that I would have my arm bitten off along with my head.

The truth is we can keep boxing ourselves in, reducing issues to ones that may yield us tiny victories in the short run, but closing the bigger windows of opportunity in the long run. We could reduce our ties with China to visa issues, our relations with the United States to access to David Headley, those with Afghanistan and Nepal to the security of Indian companies and personnel, with Australia to the safety of students, and our relations with Pakistan to the arrest of Hafeez Saeed.

All these demands are valid, and our diplomats must work on them, but they cannot be the lynchpins of Indian foreign policy. Time and again we are told that our relations with each of these countries are belied by the 'ground realities', i.e. that there is no point in talking, if their actions on the ground don't match. Well, A G Noorani reminds us in a recent article (Frontline, 'Jingoism as News') of former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who was often accused of 'selling out' at Middle East negotiations, especially when he advocated giving away some territories after the Six-Day war. "A statesman who keeps his ear permanently glued to the ground," Eban said, "will have neither elegance of posture nor flexibility of movement."

The author is deputy foreign affairs editor, CNN-IBN

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