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'Indian decision-making drives US policymakers crazy'

June 05, 2012 11:57 IST

Jonah Blank, till recently policy director for South Asia on the majority staff of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said the Indian decision-making process "drives US policymakers crazy."

Blank said that any policymaker who 'has ever had to deal with the Indian decision-making process would say undoubtedly yes, on the question 'Does India in fact display a very high degree of attachment to autonomy as a core goal in foreign policy?'

He said, "Having been in closed rooms with policymakers who have to deal with the Indian decision-making process, American policymakers do not like it one bit," and noted that "very few of them would deny that it is really a fundamental aspect of India's foreign policy decision-making."

Blank, an anthropologist by training and also a one-time journalist who's spent a considerable number of years based in South Asia and also covering the subcontinent and is the author of Mullahs on the Main Frame: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras, and also Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India, also pilloried India's "idea of civilisational entitlement."

He asked, "Why is it that India might be willing to take more of a back seat in terms of international engagement? India is great simply by being India or they put forward that as an encapsulation of part of that theory of civilisational entitlement."

Blank said, "I raise two questions about this -- one is, why have we not seen the same civilisational entitlement from China? One could say we have seen it and that it's all in the past. But why is that?"

"Why has China moved from a self-contained civilisational entitlement to a view that is a lot more expansive, particularly when Chinese civilisational entitlement has historically been far more bounded than India's until the end of the Ming Dynasty? Any Chinese subject could essentially be subject to grave penalties simply for travelling outside the bounds of the empire under certain circumstances," he added.

The second line of inquiry, he said, "Goes to the hard power side of the internationalist interpretation," and asked, "How is it that the hard nationalist narrative deals with the civilisational theory that there have been only three times in history when Indian empires or states have controlled more territory than the current boundaries of modern-day India┬ůand all three of them were explicitly non-Hindu empires?"

Thus, in this regard, he said, "How does Hindu nationalism deal with that civilisational question?"

Blank argued, "The usual colonial humiliation -- how is it that India has responded to colonial humiliation by turning inward in a sense, or at least favoring autonomy rather than outward, when one looks at other examples of post-colonial responses."

"We see the Pan-Africa movement, the Pan-Arab movement, Latin American movements that try to band together rather than to take their own paths in the 1950s and 1960s, and part of the post-colonial discourse was that the colonial masters practiced divide and conquer, which of course, they did," he added.

"So, why has India's response been to stay divided from other colonial nations?"

Blank contended, "The Non-aligned movement was part of a rhetorical attempt to come together, but India never seriously considered giving up its autonomy to the greater non-aligned movement."

With respect to history, he said, "The founding fathers, Nehru on particular, what role did that have? If Mahatma Gandhi had lived, would that have changed the outlook for India?"

Blank also wondered if Hindu nationalism "been a non-factor until the 1980s had it not been for Nathuram Godse pulling the trigger and killing the icon of the Indian independence movement?"

"This had discredited Hindu nationalism, precisely at the time when Indian national identity was being created in a sense, and so was Godse one of the drivers of this vision of India as an autonomous power?"

Thus, Blank argued that to some degree, the policymaking and policy shaping community "have to look at the India that really is, rather than the India that some of us -- and I don't include myself in this -- wish that it were."

He said, "The United States, in the policymaking community, often wishes that India would become part of a new alignment -- a Western alignment -- as sort of a junior partner of the US."

Blank said, "I would contend that this is unrealistic -- autonomy is not a passing phase. It's not simply a bit of a neurosis that India has to work through. I would contend that it is a central value of Indian policymaking and of Indian identity and it would be with us for a long time."

He said, "US policymakers can ignore this, they can bemoan it, or they can embrace it. And, in my view at least, we are just beating our heads against a wall if we try to get a country to change an aspect of identity they consider to be core to its true nature."
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC