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'It is in South Asia that our destiny lies'

November 09, 2012 18:16 IST

Former diplomat and columnist M K Bhadrakumar appeared on the Rediff Chat to take questions on how India should steer the ship of foreign policy between two giants -- the United States and China.

Following is the chat transcript.

MISSIONUSA : Sir , I want to migrate to USA forever, how to get job in USA? Please help.

Sorry, this isn't my beat... You should probably get a job in the US, or get yourself sponsored by someone, or something like that. But let me ask a counter question: Why are you in such tearing hurry to migrate? Do you think America is a land of milk and honey?

Kejriwal : So sir, is India up to the challenges on the foreign policy front?

I'm delighted to get a question from such a famous name! Yes, Sir, India has miles to go as it is in mortal danger of losing its priorities. The domestic situation is fluid and uncertain and foreign policy cannot be effective when a country is in drift.

xwyz : How do you think India can build bridges with the new regime in China?

Hey Mystery Man! What's there in a human name, hey? Of course, India is coming to terms with China's rise and its handling of the competition-cum-cooperation paradigm has been superb, almost optimal, to my mind. The change of leadership in China doesn't mean a 'new regime'. There is going to be a lot of continuity in policies as China reforms.

Ambani : The Democrats coming to power in the US, can't be good news for India, no?

Hardly, Ambani! I don't buy into this argument. Richard Nixon gave us one hell of time, isn't it? Wasn't it Bill Clinton who buried the cold-war era apathy in US-Indian relations? Didn't Barack Obama carry forward the deepening of the ties?

Thackeray : The first term of Obama was so blah, wasn't it sir? How can India, which will soon slip into election mode, overcome the ennui that so characterises international relations?

Come on Thackeray. Don't be so harsh on Obama. His first term did have a few things to write home about. The healthcare law which is clicking in by 2014 has assured his place in American social and political history. Abroad, he did wind up the senseless war in Iraq, and he is well on the way to pull out the troops from Afghanistan.

He has shown firmness toward Iran, but with a great sense of restraint as well. He has begun jettisoning the Bush-era doctrine of unilateralism; America has 'returned' to the UN and multilateralism. Yes, you're right, Obama presents a big window of opportunity for India in terms of his China policy and his desire to foster strategic ties with India. We are today where China found itself in the roaring decades of the 1970s and '80s after Kissinger's path breaking visit, which China cleverly used to build itself up. Yes, regrettably, India is in a state of drift and unless the house in order, our foreign policy and diplomacy would be at a disadvantage.

Kumar : With a new order emerging in India, what can India expect? More border tensions, or a peaceful coexistence? Will there be any change in China's outlook on India, the far east, the west?

Kumarji, the contemporary world situation works to India's advantage. It is an emerging power and despite the current air of despondency and drift within the country, the future beckons India as a major player. I don't see a border war breaking out either with Pakistan or China.

The normalization with these countries has some way to go before gaining traction, but an air of easing of tensions is appearing. Your question on China has no easy answers, especially as little is know about the new leadership. Objectively, China's interests would be best served if it worked harmoniously with its neighbours and the leadership in Beijing is also aware that the country is beset with a lot of internal problems. China's trajectory so far has been to avoid confrontations and conflicts.

The communist party's legitimacy depends critically on its capacity to meet the people's aspirations of a better life -- Chinese people want to live like the Americans. The political elites are at a crossroads. The export-oriented economic strategy has more or less run its course. Growth is slowing down and can be sustained only by opening up domestic market, freeing the private sector and such things inevitably lead to political reforms. So, China has a lot of housekeeping work to attend to.

Firdie : The white vote seems to have gone out of Obama's grasp, isn't it? Isn't it rather like coming to power in India without the Hindu vote?

Hi Firdie! Just consider the following. America has voted in a new way altogether. Obama got the emerging 'multicultural' America to journey with him while Romney was left with the happily married, church-going whites. Of course, that's being a little funny. But then, Obama got 70% of Hispanic votes, 96% of African-Americna votes and a hefty chunk of Asian votes. From among white voters, his appeal proved strong for the middle class, women, etc. And indeed the gays and lesbians found him irresistible, too. Now, isn't that a cosmopolitan mandate. It's actually the 'New America' and the Republicans seem rather provincial in comparison.

Kumaran : What will be your advice for Salman Khurshid, sir?

Hi Kumaran!(By the way, that was my father's name!) I will be an impudent rascal to contemplate advising an experienced statesman like Khurshidji. But, if he allows me one word of advice, I shall put it this way: "India needs to focus a lot more on its neighbourhood and the diplomacy needs a lot of patience, humility and conviction. It is in South Asia that our destiny lies. Second, kindly do not get entrapped in vainglorious projects of power projection and/or the 'great game', since we have a huge lot of domestic problems connected with development that need critical attention and the primary task of foreign policy should be to advance the national objectives of development and economic growth. Period.

semmangudi : Manmohan Singh is said to be the master of his own foreign policy, unlike domestic policy. Given that, do you see any path-breaking initiative from Khurshid? Or will he be constrained by his boss?

Semmangudi, the Indian PM has always been the 'master' in the foreign policy arena, isn't it? Remember Panditji? Or, Narasimha Rao, I K Gujral, Rajiv Gandhi, Atalji? Was it any different? So, I think that is something generic to Westminster system of parliamentary democracy that we borrowed (and innovated) from Britain. The point is, what can we expect from Khurshidji? Indeed, he is an experienced diplomat with boundless energy, a sound intellect, an erudite mind. He is cut out for the world of 21st century diplomacy in terms of temperament, which demands lots of networking, consensus-building and focus. K has a vision of the world of tomorrow, as anyone who worked under him in the Foreign Office (as I did, fortunately) would testify.

His priority will be on economic diplomacy and India's neighborhood and 'extended neighborhood'. He is very knowledgeable about West Asia which is currently a core area for Indian interests, and he is highly regarded in the regional capitals -- be it Tehran or Riyadh. I see fresh thinking coming into our West Asia Policy where the Arab Spring has brought in a huge upheaval that is going to profoundly affect India's vital interests. K is, arguably, the best choice that PM could have made as India's EAM in the contemporary world situation.