Saturday, February 18, 2012

Comments posted on The Pioneer, over Ashok Malik’s article: India gets it all wrong again - By Ghulam Muhammed

Comments posted on The Pioneer, over Ashok Malik’s article: India gets it all wrong again:

One cannot ignore the difference of world view between an American Zionist warmonger like Kissinger and a traditionally pacifist India's then foreign minister Jaswant Singh. Jaswant Singh rightly avoided reply, out of politeness.

Why a country should have to have military alliances, so that it can fight wars. Why should it not try all diplomatic moves to avoid war and if time comes, why should it depend on others to join it in its own wars, like US and Israel and NATO always go about. Like a pack of hyenas, even when they can alone fight a war, and they did like in Iraq, without waiting for others to help them out.

I think Indian response on both Maldives and Iran, was most well considered and had for the first time avoided a knee jerk reaction, that some trigger happy countries expect India to jump at the first whistle. Those writers who have sympathies with US and Israel, are naturally use every logic to fault their own government. However, so much has now come out within the short period of a week or two on the nuances of Indian foreign policy on both subjects, it is rather too presumptuous to ignore the entire perspective and push an old jaundiced view of ideological preference when the matter involves 'appeasing' - the favorite Hindutva term -- the Muslim radicals, both in Maldives and in Iran. The real world is much more complicated than to be covered by ideological terminologies.

Ghulam Muhammed, Mumbai

Author:  Ashok Malik

New Delhi's foreign policy flip-flops have left the world wondering whether there is anything ideologically or strategically non-negotiable for India.

As External Affairs Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh once recounted a conversation with Mr Henry Kissinger, former United States Secretary of State. Pointing out India’s strategic precariousness, Mr Kissinger asked Mr Singh to name one country that would completely trust India and stand by it whatever the circumstances, and would be willing to go to war for it. “And don’t say Bhutan,” the American rounded off.

As Mr Singh described it, he kept quiet, feigning to ponder over the issue. Then he pretended to be hospitable and asked Mr Kissinger if he wanted tea, gently changing the subject.

The story is telling and its lessons are perennial. This is especially so at a time when India has found itself sucked into the Iran-Israel conflict and has suffered the diminution of its influence in the Maldives, a part of the world that should logically fall under its strategic umbrella.

Reams have been written about how New Delhi can in effect do nothing in terms of the clash between Teheran on the one side, and Tel Aviv and Washington, DC, on the other. It is said India is genuinely torn between different (sets of) friends, is concerned about the impact of conflict in West Asia on its diaspora, oil imports and economy — and therefore has little autonomy for action even if it was probably Iran-backed terrorists who tried assassinating a diplomat in the heart of New Delhi.

All of this is true, as is the truism that India is trapped between competing choices — doing business with Iran, becoming at least for a while its biggest oil customer; or backing Israel in preventing a nuclear-arms race among adversarial Muslim countries in its near-neighbourhood. However, at a fundamental level a plethora of choices of this nature also indicates the absence of a choice. Far from flexibility, it gives India’s strategic space a certain vulnerability.

The upshot of this is when it comes to the crunch, at the absolute essence, few countries implicitly trust India. This is not because they dislike India or believe it to be inherently evil. It is just that the process of decision-making in terms of foreign policy and strategic choices is so unpredictable, so susceptible to pressures — personal and political, media and electoral — that India comes across not as a resolute power but a fickle actor. In the Iran-Israel case, for instance, India is trying to balance things and please both. It is likely it will please none.

The mess in Male offers another window to the same predicament. It is now obvious India misjudged the timing and smoothness of the transition from President Mohamed Nasheed to the successor regime. The Indian Prime Minister was too quick to send a congratulatory letter to the new Government in Male, according it legitimacy with astonishing speed and without holding out for any benefits. That aside, India doggedly refused to term the displacement of Mr Nasheed as a coup without quite explaining how the overthrow of a democratically-elected leader could be anything but that.

Perhaps this was an error of judgement. Fair enough, even diplomats and Foreign Offices make mistakes. What compounded India’s folly was the flurry of news stories and media plants that followed. The Ministry of External Affairs claimed to have organised the transition in Male. Then it began a process of disparaging Mr Nasheed — saying he was unpredictable, authoritarian, anyway in bed with the Islamists, even if the Islamists were emerging even stronger with his departure.

Again all of this may be true, but the post facto rationalisation from South Block was rather perplexing. It created the impression that India was eager to curry favour with the new regime in Male, whatever the cost. It was diplomacy at its most clumsy.

A week ago, on Saturday, February 11, the Indian Express published a long report on Mr Nasheed’s relationship with India. The report was fairly detailed and obviously based on top-level briefings. One paragraph was astounding: “It’s learnt that Nasheed would regularly send lists of Maldivian students studying in India, who were suspected radicals. In fact, it was this effort which led to the discovery that many fundamentalist Maldivian groups were sending terror recruits in the garb of students to India, who would later smuggle themselves into Pakistan for training. He had also agreed to far-reaching defence arrangements with India after 26/11.”

However hard one tries, it is difficult to see the utility of this briefing. Indeed, the official who gave away this information is guilty of almost treason. In a couple of throwaway sentences, he revealed the President of another country was sending India names of dubious students. This has completely compromised Mr Nasheed in the Maldives, where his opponents will accuse him of prioritising Indian security over safety of and loyalty to his fellow citizens.

Is this how India treats a high-ranking intelligence asset, one at the level of head of state? After this, would any future political leader in the Maldives offer support and cooperation to India? Unable or unwilling to keep its mouth shut, what is the message the Indian establishment is sending?

A stolid, solid strategic and foreign policy establishment needs to have some key attributes — reticence, consistency, dependability and maturity. New Delhi often falters against these benchmarks. If at the end of the day it is left with weakened political leverage in Male, it will have only itself to blame. In the case of the attack on the Israeli diplomat, if India cannot convey a simple, unambiguous and public message to Iran that it will not tolerate its territory being used to launch a terror strike, how can it be expected to be taken seriously?

India has gone through this before. It blundered its way through the ‘revolution’ in Nepal without optimising its best interests. Today, it matters less in Kathmandu than it did a decade ago. In 1990, India was quite okay with Kuwait being gobbled up by Iraq. After the Americans and their allies went to war and liberated Kuwait, India looked mighty silly. Far from protecting its diaspora, New Delhi ended up hurting it. Indians were punished and denied jobs and contracts in reconstruction-era Kuwait.

Taking a cautious and calibrated approach in times of crisis is all very well, but this cannot become an excuse for following the line of least resistance. It ends up presenting India as a country that can live with and accept anything — a democratic Maldives, an Islamist Maldives, a nuclear Iran, a non-nuclear Iran, just anything. It leaves the world, and even stakeholders at home, wondering whether there is anything ideologically or strategically non-negotiable for India.

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Ashok Malik

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