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February 11, 1998


Ashok Mitra

'An economically weak nation cannot but cut a sorry figure if it presumes to take charge of the affairs of the world'

The prime minister of what can be aptly described as a caretaker government has indulged in some embarrassing self-praise. Besides being the prime minister, he is also the country's foreign minister. His achievements in the sphere of international relations during the short span of 18 months he has held that office are -- according to his recorded view -- outstanding.

It is as if the country had no foreign minister of his quality in the past nor is it likely to have one in the future. Because of his imaginative initiatives and exertions, India's position in the comity of nations, which had come under a cloud in recent times, is fully restored -- so claims the lameduck prime minister.

One should not be unnecessarily harsh with the gentleman, who is otherwise charm and elegance personified. He perhaps does not mean any harm and is merely contributing to some campaign repartee. But should he deign to proceed beyond and take his testimonial to himself seriously, it would be necessary to offer a harsher comment: the outgoing prime minister is dwelling in a fool's paradise.

Certainly he has done a lot of international travel in the course of his tenure; who knows, he might have even beaten Jawaharlal Nehru hollow in this regard. Such meandering ought to have broadened his mind. They have not. His forays in United Nations and his other ponderous addresses hither and thither should have convinced him of what to others is an easily recognisable proposition: nobody cares for India in the international concourse.

India's refusal to join up when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by most other non-nuclear countries was a flash in the pan, and it is conceivable that -- during a few private talks -- India's envoys succeeded to explain the domestic exigencies standing in the way to the satisfaction of the United States. Perhaps it was also communicated to the US administration that as far as the rest of the agenda was concerned, India would not deviate from the directives prescribed by the 'international community'.

It is difficult to remember one major international issue where India's advice has been heard with respect in recent times. On such sticky issues as those involving Bosnia or Cuba or Iraq or the sub-Sahara, India's diplomacy has consisted of an obsequious silence. In the 1950s and 1960, because of the discipline drilled in by V K Krishna Menon, South Block could keep on leash the resident mandarins in North Block who were anxious to be on the right side of the US in the hope of ensuring easy economic accommodation, either directly from the world's wealthiest country or from international financial institutions under the tutelage of that country.

The situation is now reversed, the backroom boys installed in the ministry of finance by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund call the tune, and South Block has trained itself to fall in line. In not even one instance, the self-effusive prime minister has countermanded North Block's veto on any major international economic issue. This includes the imbroglio arising out of the the World Trade Organisation's constant wheedling to lower tariff walls on foreign goods, and the general crisis in global environment.

Despite one or two half-hearted attempts, the prime minister has been unable to revive the non-aligned movement of yore. The principal reason is that as a nation India does not count any more. The failure on the part of the external affairs backroom boys who tow the prime minister's line -- or the prime minister who tows their line -- was piteously exposed when India tried to challenge Japan for election to a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. And the crudity of our officials who buttonhole visiting foreign dignitaries to endorse India's claim for a permanent seat in the security council has been uniformly embarrassing.

The prime minister has endeavoured to normalise relations with our immediate neighbours. But Kashmir remains the major sore, and civilities exchanged in occasional South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation meetings have very little significance. The prime minister's hallucinations therefore do not mean a thing.

An objective assessment has to reach the following conclusions: India is as good as non-existent in the global arena. Its voice has not been heard during the grisly tragedy in Burundi; its government has not dared to tick off the US for its overbearing attitude toward Libya or former Yugoslavia; India chose to have its arm twisted in the Singapore concourse on the emerging international investment regulations the Western nations would like to enforce.

Some marks could have been credited to India's account if our delegates at least led from the front even when they were going down. For instance, on the WTO's fiat on the deregulation of the services sector -- on most occasions, India's representatives capitulated without a murmur. And where the latest -- and seemingly by far the most intractable -- problem, the economic debacle in Asia, is concerned, none has bothered to seek India's views.

Maybe it is not easy for the prime minister in these election eve days to set aside time for some introspection, otherwise a couple of realisations would have straightaway dawned on him. An economically weak nation cannot but cut a sorry figure if it presumes to take charge of the affairs of the world.

For, such a country neither invokes fear nor carries respect; it cannot shrug off the regular dole of Western economic assistance; it cannot boast of a fabulous rate of economic growth it has attained and a huge domestic market it commands.

Of course, even a country possessing all such attributes could prefer, for its own reasons, not to play an active role in the international arena. That does not, however, imply that the gap thereby created might be filled by a nation whose only credentials are an insufferable weakness for self-indulgence.

True, even were a country reduced to the humblest of circumstances, it could still play a significant role in global affairs if it were to provide evidence of a strong moral fibre. Its adherence to principles or an ideology need not initially invoke widespread admiration. But credibility is a function of time, and as long as such a country is steadfast in its beliefs and attitudes despite the afflictions it is subjected to, international admiration for the country would grow and grow.

That is why both Cuba and Iraq, who were, for different reasons, isolated within the UN and outside, now command, their puny size and population notwithstanding, much more regard and respect than India does.

India's caretaker prime minister should think more -- and, shall we not add, speak less -- during the leftover weeks of his tenure.

Ashok Mitra

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