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Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta

There's an India that wants more!

October 20, 2003

India's penchant for missing the bus and dialling wrong numbers have by now reached legendary proportions. We spurned an invitation to join ASEAN in the early 1980s because the pinks in our foreign policy establishment deemed this would be tantamount to kow-towing to Yankee imperialism.

We welcomed the Soviet Union's ill-considered invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 because the very same progressives had informed us that only the Red Army can achieve liberation for oppressed souls.

So, when the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, we were left clutching at straws. So much so that there were whoops of delight in the Indian mission in Moscow when some desperate Communists attempted a pathetic coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. India very narrowly averted the embarrassment of formally welcoming the Red putschists.

With the UN Security Council unanimously endorsing the role of the Anglo-American occupation force and the Iraqi Governing Council in restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people, the history of India's missed opportunities come readily to mind.

For at least four months, beginning with the visit of National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra to Washington last May, the George W Bush administration pleaded, cajoled and tempted India to assume peace-keeping responsibilities in Iraq.

When Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani visited the US in the summer, the entire who's who of Washington met him to press for the despatch of Indian forces. If India acceded to the request, Advani was told, Indo-US relations would move to a higher plane.

Subsequently, a Pentagon team arrived in Delhi to offer clarifications on the intended role of India in Iraq. Our officials listened attentively but their queries suggested a negative bent of mind.

It is not that members of the Cabinet Committee on Securityweren't tempted or that the army was disinclined. It is just that when it comes to the crunch India loves exercising the softest option.

This is precisely what happened with the Iraq project. Our political class fell back on the puerile parliamentary resolution that more or less endorses the reinstallation of Saddam Hussein to claim its hands were tied. To this was added the lack of domestic consensus, a euphemism for suggesting that Messrs Mani Shankar Aiyar, Sitaram Yechuri and G M Banatwala exercise a veto in foreign policy.

Finally, the CCS said no on the ground that there was no UN sanction.

In September, electoral compulsions were added to the list of excuses. The Americans were very civil and said they understood.

Now that the UN Security Council Resolution 151 has given the CCS what it was insisting upon, will India reconsider its mealy-mouthed No? It seems highly unlikely. Our intellectual and policy establishments have convinced themselves that the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq is a misadventure that will end in tears.

Therefore, every bomb blast in Baghdad, every assassination of a Shia cleric and every conceited outpouring of French or German diplomatic angst, is cited as another reason why we were right to not assume a supporting role in Northern Iraq.

If that was indeed the case why didn't we tell Washington and London right at the outset that we don't have the stomach for wider responsibilities? Would it not have been more honest? Why did we give the impression that we had an open mind on the subject and that it all depended on the long-term quid pro quo?

There are contradictory pulls and pressures in India. There is one part of us that is caught in a bizarre time warp that still looks back wistfully at the time Moscow was creating socialist millionaires by the dozen and when the hallmark of good taste was supping with ridiculously corrupt and incompetent African dictators. This part of us still talks of the charms of multipolarity, quite forgetting that multilateral groups like the OIC and EU won't even allow us into the ante-room.

This part of us still talks approvingly of UN mandates, as if our own experience of the international body has been something to write home about. This part of us is actually happy that Islamist guerrillas are making life hell for the US forces in Iraq, quite forgetting the horrifying implications of American failure in Iraq and, for that matter, Afghanistan.

Fortunately, there is another India. That India is impatient with its Third World tag and despises the lowly role we have settled for. That is an India which believes our rightful place is on the high table. That is the India which is riding the crest of economic success and, like the Pepsi ad, wants more. That India wanted a role in Iraq.

Tragically, the past prevailed, not a vision of the future. It is a miscalculation that will prove costly. For the past decade or so, India has been campaigning incessantly for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is a legitimate demand, perhaps as legitimate as France wielding a veto. Yet, such a role involves assuming difficult responsibilities and assuming them when the going isn't necessarily good.

It involves combining fights with obligations. The Iraqi Governing Council is more willing to accept Indian peace-keeping forces than it is willing to stomach the presence of Turkish troops. We frittered away that goodwill.

The despatch of Indian forces to Iraq would have provided the opportunity to signal the radical break in our foreign policy. It would have indicated the end of our cold war with the West, something which society has already internalised but which the state apparatus has been slow to accept.

In retrospect, we may look on our dithering over Iraq as yet another occasion when we missed the bus.


Swapan Dasgupta


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Number of User Comments: 68




Sub: Reckless policies make a Shining India ?!

The Red Cross is cutting its presence in Iraq. Medicins sans Frontieres is removing all foreign presence in Iraq. Note that these organisations are always ...


Posted by Jagtar Kohli





Sub: No depth

If the writer's intenion was to get a lot of responses,then he has certainly succeded. After saying that I must add that even the american ...


Posted by tyagi





Sub: Delusioned

Mr. D.. belongs to a new breed of Indians who have given up thinking in the Indian context. He is busy cooking up a new ...


Posted by Prasanth





Sub: It does not cover everything

Dear sir, Well written, but does not cover everything. At the risk of sounding like Pinko, I want to cover following: 1. Whether right or ...


Posted by Sudhanshu Mittal





Sub: India mangey more!

I could not disagree more with Swapan concerning sending troops to Iraq. India had made it clear that it will send troops to Iraq only ...


Posted by Dinkar B. Koppikar




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