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April 24, 1998


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Ashwin Mahesh

The Solidarity of Democracy

The honeymoon days of the new government will soon pass into the ages, leaving only the nitty-gritty tasks of governing in earnest. In a nation of India's size and potential, and given the lackadaisical efforts of the past, a government that promotes the aspirations of the people will do remarkably well. Sensing this, no doubt, there is some initial euphoria, reflecting the optimism that the Bharatiya Janata Party will be such a facilitator. The natural course of events, combined with a government that is less interfering, will produce desirable results soon enough.

There is, however, one sphere of activity where determined action by the government is needed, and passive positions have in the past proved futile. Foreign policy must no longer be allowed to take the desultory course it has held to in the past. Instead, a precise and well-formulated policy, backed by a visible and cohesive public relations campaign, is needed to put India firmly within the ring of active participants on the world's stage. If this is to come about, the party in power needs a rethink.

The natural inclination of the BJP is to take anti-Western positions, stemming partly from the perception that all that is Western is inherently alien to Indian culture. Disparaging Clinton, or dismissing American and European positions as little more than white supremacy in the garb of diplomacy, is standard. But that overlooks two important truths. One, that we are ourselves capable of cultural disintegration without any assistance from America or Europe. It may be convenient to blame MTV for the low skirts and cutoff jeans, but our youth aren't exactly longing to learn the rigors of probity, whatever its ethnicity.

Second, our failings in foreign affairs are largely of our own making, not the result of Western-imposed world orders. The depressing results of past policies are sometimes attributed to Western hegemony as if that explains all. This is a dubious claim, from a nation which never accepted such hierarchies post Independence, and which for the most part was aligned with anti-Western governments. Moreover, we embraced these positions willingly enough.

Patently anti-Western policies also neglect the obvious similarities between Indian society and those of the West. Instead of heightening the differences and crying foul, we should be looking to build on our similarities and embracing the accompanying prosperity and freedom. A realignment based on our national interests is necessary, and a natural one presents itself if only we will bring ourselves to see it.

First, a look at the status quo in global affairs. Whether it is in handling Pakistani allegations at the United Nations, or standing up for underpaid troops on peace-keeping duty, we are routinely regarded as little more than a distraction to the world order. The endless lines in searing temperatures outside foreign embassies speak volumes about us -- we are a largely inconsequential player in global relations. Even our feeble claims to Security Council non-permanent positions have been either bought off or shelved with little ado. The fiasco over permanent membership no doubt lies ahead, unless we choose a different path.

How did this second-class status come to pass? For decades together, we built our foreign policy on the confused Nehru-Gandhi idea that India could be a strong and vibrant toady. The obvious oxymoronic nature of that assumption escaped no one -- while we sang hymns to Independence and G-77, the world simply moved on. Everyone knew we were little more than a Soviet appendage, and accorded us the corresponding measure of disrespect.

Our professed independent course predictably led nowhere. Foreign affairs are about engaging others, not standing apart from them. After the Soviet Union collapsed, we began to look more closely in the mirror, and the need for a rethink began to set in. Into this meandering river stepped Inder Gujral and his Theories of Unilateral Genuflection, posing as a scholarly rendition of Mera Planet Mahaan. To no one's surprise, our neighbours built dams and roads with our money and went about hugging the PM. In return, they gave us porous borders, RDX packages, and ISI-funded gratitude. For this, we signed Friendship treaties!

If anything is perfectly obvious, it is this -- the twin pillars of independent thought and unilateral friendship both stand tall and truly exposed, the Nanga Parbat of fifty years of nation-building. We hang on to the Communist also-rans in the name of shared political history, we reach out to the capitalist in solemn brotherhood of the free market, we empathise with the poor in the Third World, and arm ourselves with the mighty. In the process, we have a small part of every ideological spectrum, and a significant part of none. Predictably, we are left without a stage to mount, without a thought to voice, and without a voice to speak.

So much for what has passed. To the future then, with the lessons of the past well learned. If independence of opinion is an unrealistic and unworkable position, the alternative is to take sides. The current global equations of power, unipolar as they are, seem to suggest that there are no clearly opposing sides. At any rate, by taking sides in ongoing disputes, we could only hop on to existing platforms, which will leave us no better than in the past, when our affiliation was merely concealed.

We need a foreign policy in which we participate based on our strengths, and their relation to those of others. For too long, we have groped in the dark, trying to identify how we might fit into others's strengths. Instead, we need a policy that originates from Indian interests, has reasonably predictable long-term objectives, and is backed by our particular strengths, and perhaps more importantly, attempts to overcome the designs of other states which act against our interest. Every one of these objectives can be achieved by a coherent foreign policy with a single foundation -- the Solidarity of Democracy.

No clearer division of the world can be made than on the basis of political structures governing people. Roughly half the world is run by elected governments that must answer to the people, and the various dictatorships, military juntas, and heavily military-backed sham democracies make up the rest. This second half, comprising primarily the nations of East Asia and Islamic countries everywhere, is already evolving a military alliance, which we Indians are only too acutely aware of, thanks to growing military co-operation between Pakistan, Iran and China.

The free world, in which we may happily count ourselves, is a natural fit to our social and political systems. And freedom can become a basis for participation in the world for which we need never give any accounting, for its genuine worth is self-evident. As our economic ties to the free world continue to gallop, it is but natural that we formalise it. To do so primarily of our own intent will give such a step the necessary foundation from which military and economic cooperation with global powers will flow naturally. Such an alliance is not only beneficial, but quite necessary.

We need to recognise that the worst aspect of our global image hinges on our relations with our immediate neighbours, notably Pakistan. Still more significantly, Pakistan's own strength is drawn in large measure from American support. To break that nexus, we must take the issue out of the Pakistani realm and into the global realm. Vajpayee should appeal directly to the US to recognise India's natural association with American interests, our comparable political systems, and our shared ideas about freedom and tolerance. Whether these are real is irrelevant, if India makes such a claim and repeats it often enough and publicly enough, the US can hardly refute it.

Still, we should ensure that our existing military and economic ties are not overly compromised by this new solidarity. And democracy is the obvious road to take to achieve this. An association built on democracy has the potential to (overtly at least) include Russian interests easily enough. At the same time, it can be used to build a solidarity with the West, which can become a pillar of security and prosperity. Such a solidarity will also maintain relations with such crucial states as Turkey, Israel and South Africa on an even keel, creating a sustainable basis for our associations.

Obviously, such a policy must overcome the most visible strain -- the clear disassociation from our immediate neighbours. Unfortunately, in this regard, we have little choice. We are bounded by nations ideologically opposed to us, since they have defined themselves by what we are not, as in the case of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although this is not true of the Chinese, it is unlikely the current Chinese positions reflect any particular fondness for India. While their military alliance with Pakistan continues, we can do little but accept its reality.

Whereas on the face of it, active realignment is confrontational, it is in essence quite pacifist. Any confrontational content is mostly in response to existing threats and not of our making. Further, should the Chinese or the Islamic nations adopt democratic processes, a process of co-opting them into non-threatening alignments will already be in place, offering much greater scope for stability.

Samuel Huntington's much-acclaimed book, The Clash of Civilizations, revealed much about modern geopolitics and military associations. The gradual build-up of relations between China, Pakistan and Iran will result in the formation of an axis that is fundamentally opposed to western hegemony. China's continuing growth will put it increasingly at odds with America and Europe. When the next Cold War rolls around, we can sit on the isolated sidelines as before, with much the same consequences. Or we can take a position of strength which all Indians can embrace, and draw from it the political muscle needed to hold our own.

The Solidarity of Democracy is the obvious position to take to further India's image and strength in the global arena. It is for the most part a valid claim, it excludes no sections of the Indian population, and it is rooted in notions of mutual regard which discourage active confrontation. It is also an eloquent, and yet simple, position. Freedom. Who cannot identify with that? Can a party founded on its commitment to restoring India's past glory find some of the answers to its quest in embracing the realities of the present and the opportunities of the future? For India's sake, we must hope the answer is yes.

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