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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

South Block: Time for Reorientation

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Whatever explanation may be trotted out by the External Affairs Ministry, there is no escape from the fact that the country has suffered a humiliating defeat in the race for a non-permanent member seat in the UN Security Council.

There will be pundits who will ascribe the poor Indian score to our refusal to sign the CTBT which the government rightly decided for the country. This school of thought seems to argue that had India voted for the CTBT, the US would have condescended to back India and that would have fetched us the required number for entitlement to a Security Council seat. This means to suggest that whatever option we now have for taking an independent position on issues coming up before world affairs, would have been sacrificed in placating the great American lobby. Such a victory would have perhaps been worse than defeat, because that would have meant a seat in the American bandwagon dutifully towing the line set by the US mission at the UN.

There is ample justification for the demand now being raised in many quarters for a review of the functioning of the External Affairs Ministry—a job which has practically been abandoned since Parliament nowadays hardly holds a debate on foreign affairs which was a regular practice for every term under Nehru. If such a review takes place, it will show up how many jaunts that the senior officers of the Foreign Office have undertaken in recent months to canvass for election votes for the Security Council. It would be useful to know what reports these worthies might have submitted which misled the government into believing that it had a fair chance of doing well at the Security Council election.

It is not only the Security Council poll fiasco but on many other issues on which the mandarins of our Foreign Office have been found to be out of joint. A very recent example of such dereliction is provided by their handling of Iran’s initiative on the Afghan crisis. It is known that there is a fairly sizeable lobby in our Foreign Office which has been, to say it mildly, unresponsive to Iran. In fact there was a Foreign Secretary in no distant past who was allergic to Iran, but fortunately for our government, that character has retired. The pro-US lobby in our government tries to undermine our relations with Iran as part of their game to curry favour with the US Administration. Since President Clinton had branded Iran as a “rogue” state, one could perceive a distinct tendency among some sections of our government seeking to keep a safe distance away from it on any issue of major concern.

This could be seen very palpably in the handling of the Iran-sponsored conference of the Friends of Afghanistan, taking place this week at Tehran. This Iranian initiative was mainly to stop the blood-letting civil war in Afghanistan, in which the Pakistan-backed Taliban has been creating havoc. The Iranian plan has been that as a prelude to any UN sponsored conference on Afghanistan, which the Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is due to call sometime later this year, it will be useful to take an Asian initiative for a regional conference on Afghanistan, which without involving the actual participants could lay down the ground rules for a settlement which would not only bring peace but set down the terms for ensuring the unity and sovereignty of Afghanistan. The Iranian Foreign Minister Vilayati took pains to visit all the countries in his list which included not only the Central Asian states in the border of Iran, but also Moscow as the head of the CIS as well as Turkey and China.

When Vilayati came to Delhi on a brief, businesslike visit last week, our External Affairs Minister Gujral readily welcomed the initiative and promised to attend it. Unfortunately he fell ill and the Foreign Ministry bosses made little preparations on the score, taking it for granted that in the absence of Gujral, the officials would represent the Indian Government, which would be taken by the Iranians as virtually downgrading their initiative on Afghanistan. This fits in beautifully with the current US line which would try to scotch every Iranian initiative in international affairs.

When the present writer alongwith some senior journalists visited Iran last week, it was clear as daylight that Iran was dead serious about holding this conference as a sort of a new initiative on its part before the proposed UN Conference. Since however the USA is not an invitee, one found that the US lobby was trying to downplay its importance, and in line with that, one was surprised that there was hardly any preparations for it from our Foreign Office.

The visiting Indian journalists countered this pernicious move by widely publicising in the Indian media their meeting with Vilayati about the conference and also emphasised Iran’s definite interest in getting the active cooperation of India for such a conference. When all this reached Foreign Minister Gujral, it needs to be said to his credit that even from his sick-bed he promptly reiterated India’s readiness to support such an initiative. Anxious not to downgrade Indian representation in the absence of Gujral himself due to illness, he arranged for his Cabinet colleague, Chaturanan Mishra, to represent India at the Conference. This way the move to drag the feet on the part of Indian officials, was scotched and today India has openly said it would stand by Iran’s latest approach on the Afghan crisis. Obviously, it is not to the liking of the USA that any Iranian initiative to rope in regional neighbours for a Conference on Afghanistan, fits in with India’s approach towards the bloody Afghan crisis.

Such an initiative coming from our Asian neighbour deserves to be strongly supported by our government. This is an initiative which, if successful, would reinforce the principle of the UN Charter. It is unfortunate that a section in our government is so chicken-hearted as to be scared by the frowns of the US Administration. Here is the touchastone of the independence of our foreign policy which Foreign Minister Gujral has retrieved despite the move by which a section of his Ministry was found to have almost abandoned it.

In the new world after the Cold War, the responsibility of the forces of peace and independence in the Third World has become doubly imperative. The US military power is anxious on getting surrogates to ensure its hegemony. Ranged against it are the forces of peace and independence who deserve the active support and cooperation of all those opposed to super power domination. There need be no mistake which side lies India’s interests. Our Foreign Minister Gujral has understood where lies India’s interests in the Afghan crisis but he is yet to make sure that his Ministry is attuned to this outlook. The fight for independence of our foreign policy has to be sorted out whithin the South Block itself.

(Mainstream, November 2, 1996)

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