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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 30

A Question of Leadership

Wednesday 16 July 2008, by C B Muthamma


At the height of the public debate over the nuclear agreement with the US, with the voicing from many quarters of concern that India was at risk of losing its independence in foreign policy, the government’s reply was that India was a big country that could not be pressurised by outside powers. But the size of a country is not a decisive factor—the strength and stature of the leadership is. In recent years the world has seen such a “big” country as Russia ruled by two very different kinds of leaders—Yeltsin and Putin; and it recognises the difference and responds accordingly. Of recent memory is the case of Vietnam, a relatively small country, which was led through a critical period of its history by a great leader. In fact we could cite the case of our own “big” country, mired in subjugation seemingly for an indefinite future, until a great leader came along. We should not now risk handing over the country to a post-colonial variety of dominance of which there are several examples in the current world.

The fact is that even while our Prime Minister was putting out the “big country” argument, his government voted twice against Iran at the IAEA manifestly to please the US. With the US openly arguing against the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, India dragged its feet for a long time, making a virtue out of the attendant problems, while at the same time going all out to overcome the serious problems on the nuclear deal. Whether the deal is good or bad for India has to be decided on its own merits, ensuring that India does not pay too high a price for whatever benefits it might get from the deal, such as bartering away its independent foreign policy whether overtly or covertly. But while the government was making a hue and cry over India’s energy security (as an argument in favour of the nuclear deal), it made no sense to prevaricate over an energy source practically at our doorstep, in order to fall in with the US efforts to isolate Iran, taking on America’s quarrels with Iran to the detriment of our own interests. Moreover the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline has the advantage of building prospectively strong links with Pakistan and Iran. India has a vested interest in building such links. Recent developments in Pakistan indicate that the prospects for building friendship and solidarity with that country are better than they were even ten years ago. India also ensured that the State Bank of India did not underwrite financial and commercial deals with Iran. After persistent public objections to India’s Iran policy, there seem to be second thoughts on the IPI gas pipeline.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s understanding of foreign affairs and his core beliefs in this respect have been spelt out by him. On a return flight from a G-8 meeting in Germany in June 2007, he had this to say to the Indian press: “When we did a foreign policy review, we felt, in a globalised world, Indo-US relations were the key and we needed to give them the highest importance.” After his meetings with President Bush, he said: “He puts you at ease and listens carefully. He is very nice to me and of all the US Presidents he is the friendliest towards India.” This is not the tone of the head of a sovereign government holding discussions with the head of another sovereign government on matters of mutual interest. It is the tone of a supplicant taking favours.

On China he had this to say: “As regards our international status, in major forums now, India and China are mentioned in the same breath. That is something deeply satisfying.” With such a deep diffidence and inferiority complex notwithstanding his “big country” argument, can he be trusted to stand up for the vital interests of this country against the pressures and manipulations of international politics?

The US has consistently made its objectives and intentions quite clear leaving nothing to guesswork. It has unilaterally clamped sanctions on Iran and threatened measures against countries and organisations that do not fall in line. Not so long ago a group of US Senators wrote an obnoxious and hectoring letter to Members of the Indian Parliament, threatening dire consequences if India did not comply with US demands for all the world as if India was a vassal state of America. When the Iranian President was due to visit India there were US official statements demanding that India push with Iran what was American policy. The Hyde Act itself demands Indian “congruence” with US policies. All official US delegations coming to India, including two recent ones, have harped on the same issue. The Manmohan Singh Government claims that India is not ruled by the Hyde Act. But the US is ruled by it, and can act in consonance with it to the detriment of Indian interests. It has to be borne in mind that in the past, the US has reneged on its formal agreement with India on the supply of nuclear fuel for Tarapur.

The US has shown scant regard for international agreements and international law. It pursues its objectives by all means it considers fit at any given time, confident in the belief that no country in the world can stop it or its unilateral policies. It has not only clamped sanctions against India for several decades to keep it down, but initiated the NSG to isolate India in nuclear matters. It went to the extent of persuading Russia to renege on its agreement to give cryogenic engines for India’s rockets, and later, persuaded Russia not to renew the lease of nuclear submarines to India. But as the world situation now is, the US finds an advantage in bringing India into its orbit of followers.

SO much for the stick part of America’s policy towards India. The carrot part is equally obnoxious. The US Secretary of State declares that the US “will make India a great power”. The statement must have been music to the ears of those in India who dream of the country becoming a great power, and this includes the Prime Minister, who is quoted by India Today in the interview earlier mentioned, as having said: “Nuclear power is critical to our energy security if we want to be a world power.” Nobody is asking why the US is averse to backing India’s entry into the Security Council, and why there still are uncertainties about giving India access to high technology, whether within or outside the nuclear agreement. No country can make another country great. Each country has to tread its own hard path to achieve its goals. It is well to remember that at least one country outside the Western group is amongst the most advanced economies in the world, with science and technology to match, but nobody calls it a great power, because it is the camp follower of another country. There are other countries that are compliant allies of the US. India is in danger of being reduced to that status.

The Government of India has shown no understanding of the prime importance to us of close relations with our neighbours. It was behind events in the King-versus-people conflict in Nepal, coming up with the wrong responses at each stage. Even at the very end, one of the Prime Minister’s advisers declared that India preferred the Nepali Congress to the Maoists. The same adviser, who played an important part in the nuclear deal discussions, showed his understanding of international affairs by declaring that Sri Lanka should not buy its defence equipment from sources other than India. Our neighbours are assiduously cultivated by foreign parties which have an actual or potential interest in keeping India isolated. India is contributing to this situation by its lack of understanding of realities on the ground in our neighbourhood, or perhaps its lack of interest in those realities, given its preoccupation with cultivating “great powers”.

India is deeply divided in its response to the nuclear deal. Politicians, civil society and nuclear scientists have misgivings over its possible implications, including even in matters pertaining purely to the nuclear field. But we have a team at the head of our government which is highly influenced by its past associations with America and sees America-oriented policies as the solutions to our problems. In the course of the nuclear negotiations, the PM has shown a tendency to keep the country and Parliament out of his plans, and only went to Parliament under public pressure. Even now he is unwilling to let the country know the terms of the deal being negotiated in the name of this country, leading a so-called democratic India blindly into an agreement of the government’s choosing, and showing every sign of wanting to rush headlong into the nuclear agreement regardless.

If the US is anxious as it appears to be to conclude the deal, if not the present Administration, the next Administration will be willing to deal with it, bearing in mind the US’ and world’s interest in promoting clean fuels. We need not be hustled into it under a now-or-never threat.

The author, a veteran diplomat, headed Indian missions in several countries.

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