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Questioning India's non-aligned policy

January 15, 2010 21:39 IST

Two relatively young Ministers of State in Dr Manmohan Singh's government have distinguished themselves by their contrarian stances and penchant for controversy. They are well-educated, intellectually capable, technologically savvy, and exceptionally articulate like good college-style debaters.

They are also extremely opinionated, incurably ambitious, personally narcissistic, and desperate to get attention to the point of being exhibitionist. They have tried to shape policies in their respective areas in a broadly pro-Western and pro-United States direction -- without quite having the political mandate to do so.

These men are MoS of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh and MoS of External Affairs Shashi Tharoor. Ramesh is responsible, second only to Dr Singh, for leading India into the disastrous Copenhagen Accord, a collusive compact between the US, BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) and a few other states, which absolves the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters of the responsibility to fight climate change. Ramesh has executed any number of policy turns, all ultimately resulting in pro-corporate and pro-West decisions.

Tharoor was parachuted and imposed on the Congress by its High Command after he lost the election for Secretary General of the United Nations. Since winning the Lok Sabha election, he has dutifully courted controversy through his actions, speeches and Twitter.com messages. He refused to occupy the bungalow allotted to him until it's expensively refurbished. Most Indians would consider the bungalow palatial.

But Tharoor thought it was a dump and checked into a 5-star hotel, like his Cabinet Minister SM Krishna, for which he wanted the public to foot the bill. It's only when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee publicly reminded him that the government is committed to austerity and won't foot the bill that he moved out.

However, that didn't stop Tharoor from complaining about austerity, including the rule that Ministers should fly economy class -- or, as he put it, travel "cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!" This is obnoxious in a country where less than 3 per cent of the population has ever flown. His messages are designed to stir things, snigger at official decisions and trigger controversy. He challenged his own government's new tough visa regime by saying it wouldn't improve security and that the November 2008 Mumbai "killers had no visas". His Officer on Special Duty Joseph Jacob's nasty Tweet against Foreign Minister Krishna smacks of dubious intentions.

Through his obsessive mails, Tharoor is cultivating a constituency to build up his political career. This would be unobjectionable if it didn't involve repeated breaches of the democratic principle of Ministers' collective responsibility to the Cabinet and the occasional use of offensive language. But it involves exactly that. Tharoor will soon have to decide whether he wants to be a responsible, serious politician, or behave like a frivolous second-year college kid who delivers a running commentary and takes pot-shots at the government.

In the latest episode, involving a debate on India's foreign policy in the early post-Independence period, however, Tharoor's right to express dissident views in a semi-academic forum like the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi must be defended. Tharoor was commenting on a talk by Professor Bhikhu Parikh on India's Place in the World, which criticised India's foreign policy as deriving from "misplaced righteousness".

Regardless of the merit of this judgment, there's nothing wrong with Tharoor's description of the lecture as "great". He was also right to criticise the media for distorting what he said.

However, how valid is Tharoor's view that Indian foreign policy, shaped by the special contribution by Gandhi and Nehru pertaining to "our civilisational heritage", enhanced India's global standing, but it "also earned us the negative reputation of running a moralistic commentary on world affairs"? Although Tharoor has tried to "balance" the two perceptions, he is clearly inclined to the negative view.

In his more considered remarks in his 2007 book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, he disparages non-alignment and economic development based on planning and public investment. He says Nehru "based his nationalism on a complete rejection of all things British and all their works. His letters … reveal greater sympathy for the 'extremists' in the Indian National Congress than for the 'moderates'."

The first proposition is factually false. Nehru learnt and took a great deal from the British, including Enlightenment ideas of progress and science, modernism and political liberalism and, above all, Westminster-style democracy. The second proposition too distorts reality. Congress "extremists" were not flaming radicals, but plain nationalists who wanted full independence rather than "home rule".

Tharoor is right to say that Nehru "saw the imperialism that had subjugated his people as the logical extension of international capitalism, for which he therefore felt a profound mistrust". Indeed, British colonialism couldn't be separated from capitalism's predatory pursuits.

Nehru was right to be "sceptical of Western claims to stand for freedom and democracy when India's historical experience of colonial oppression and exploitation appeared to bear out the opposite". But he's wrong to say that Nehru established "a moral equivalence between the two rival power blocs" -- NATO led by the US, and the Socialist bloc led by the USSR -- into which the world split after World War II. Tharoor is even more disastrously wrong to think that while non-alignment might have given India self-confidence and stature, the Indian people "arguably might have fared better in alliance with the West".

Tharoor's view of non-alignment -- in line with what's becoming fashionable within Indian conservative opinion -- is profoundly mistaken. It misrepresents the post-War world. By the mid-20th century, only a handful of colonies like India had become independent. Much of Asia and most of Africa was still under the colonial yoke, and the Spanish/Portuguese/British/Dutch influence in much of Latin America and the Caribbean was still very powerful.

The world was extremely skewed, with income differentials of 1:30 between rich and poor countries. It was also in the grip of coercive hegemonies and conflicts set off as part of the Cold War. Mass poverty, widespread deprivation, illiteracy and severe underdevelopment prevailed within the international order marked by unequal terms of trade and rising corporate domination. Even international institutions were exclusionary. The United Nations was set up by just 51 countries.

Non-alignment was a logical, rational and ethical response to this polarisation and pervasive iniquity. Non-alignment didn't mean passive neutrality, but the active pursuit of options that might reform the world by accelerating decolonisation, reducing inequality and expanding space for the self-reliant development of the former colonies. Third World countries that chose to align with the Western bloc turned into Banana Republics or lost out on both democratisation and development and became anaemically dependent on the West. Nehru called them "Coca Cola countries".

India's non-aligned policy offered it options through which to pursue its national interest while providing moral-political leadership to the Global South. Its genius lay in recognising the limitations of both the Western and Soviet models and trying to devise an autonomous, new model for India, with a different notion of global power. India commanded prestige because it exposed the West's hypocrisy in claiming to uphold freedom and democracy while perpetuating an unequal order. But India didn't fall into the trap of tailing the Soviet bloc.

At the same time, Nehru was not uncritical of the Soviet Union and its agenda of conventional balance-of-power politics and achieving military prowess through nuclear weapons. But he saw the value of the agenda of social and economic rights, which the Socialist bloc upheld -- in distinction o the West's expedient emphasis on civil and political rights.

The USSR supported and aided many Third World countries. Broadly speaking, despite its internal flaws, it acted globally until the late 1970s as a countervailing force to the West, which had the effect of taming capitalism and promoting a welfare state in the developed countries, while supporting many Southern countries' development.

It's worth recalling that for all his admiration for the USSR's economic policies, Nehru approached the West for help to build India's first modern steel mill. It's only after the West refused that India asked the USSR. Thus was the Bhilai steel plant born.

Nonalignment was not a "moralistic running commentary" on the world. It did have a strong moral content, but it also meant a creative exploration of different economic, diplomatic and strategic options and prompted the peaceful resolution of conflicts, greater equality and more development space for the South. This doesn't argue that Nehru was perfect. He was wrong about China and could have been far more critical than he was of the USSR's invasion of Hungary in 1956. But he had a great vision.

Nonalignment, along with the other pillars of the Nehruvian consensus -- democracy, secularism and self-reliant equitable development -- retains much of its relevance. Today's world is even more conflict-ridden and unequal than in 1950, with income differentials of 90:1. If India is to do any good to the world, it must promote the agendas of equality, justice and peace and speak for the poor and underprivileged -- and not ape the West.

Praful Bidwai