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February 25, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Ashwin Mahesh

The Solidarity of Democracy-II; a pro-active policy, please?

If you've been following news reports on President Clinton's upcoming visit to the South Asian subcontinent, you might have been amused by the tug-of-war of words that goes on in the Foreign Office and in the White House. Between fits, the US government has on the one hand affirmed that India is a great friend and a country with which it has much in common, a land of looming opportunity, holding much promise. Simultaneously, at odds with those words, we've also heard that India is no more important than Pakistan, that the nuclear issue is of tremendous concern, and that the president's visit must not be read to mean that the US now favors India over her hostile neighbour.

Speak, double-speak, triple-speak, back to square one, and so on. Whatever. It is only reasonable that the American government will sound cautious in its words, and may even choose to mix in the suggestion of closer relationship with the indication that the historical antipathy persists. Confusion creates bargaining power, and to that end, it is even a sensible ploy to fudge matters. The tamasha on the Indian side of the fence, on the other hand, is neither understandable, nor given the charge the ministry of external affairs is handed, forgivable. The reactionary and halting utterances that emanate from the Indian government do little to advance the national interest.

The axiomatic truth is that America and India have never been much closer than they are now, and even this advantageous situation has come about despite the two parties, rather than as a result of admirable efforts on our part. As if on schedule, we got a coup next door, a hijacking, legislation backing enormous increases in the number of H-1B visas, and leading presidential candidates in the United States who believe that democracies are a whole lot more special than dictatorships. If this munificent arrangement of the stars cannot be turned to advantage, nothing will, and the foreign affairs ministry might well close shop.

Ironically, capitalising on the turn of events is not a far-fetched suggestion, for there are generous props we can rely on to this end, and a coherent and forthright policy can close the deal. A couple of half-hearted public relations representatives and a loudspeaker is all that is needed to take this forward, and the momentum of economic events will ensure the outcome.

We need a foreign policy that is pro-active, not reactive. If it were, there would be no reason to decode the messages behind President Clinton's visit to India. The simplest way to achieve this end is to seize the one thing no leader of the free upon world will deny publicly.

Here is a one-line mantra that Brajesh Mishra and Jaswant Singh would do well to learn, and take to the far corners of the world on their many trips -- We are a free society, and we believe that our values fairly mirror those that are prevalent in the West, and that they provide a natural platform for strong and enduring friendship with other open societies. Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are not going to refute that publicly.

The tactical way to advance this view is to separate a loathing for those unlike ourselves from a liking for those who mirror us. We need only state that the similar nature of our societies gives us much in common with western Europe and America, we need never concern ourselves with determining if that implies a divergence between the West and those opposed to our national interest. Rather than determine a priori if America of Europe tilts toward Pakistan, we would do far better to put ourselves in a position where-from we can influence those moves. By insisting on a prior understanding of the relationship, we will achieve little more than to portray ourselves to be insecure and uncertain friends.

Proclaiming such a solidarity of free societies will put India on the map of foreign relations much faster than anything else we can do. We simply climb aboard the most powerful stages in the world by claiming that the basis for membership in those spaces is well satisfied by Indian society. The key thing is to bear in mind that it is completely irrelevant whether such claim is valid; instead it relies only on the assurance that leaders of the free world are unlikely to espouse publicly a view of the world that casts dictators and elected representatives in the same basket.

The indispensable corollary to this is that we must repeat this position publicly, often, and loudly. There is no greater maxim in international relations that the fact that whatever you claim to be the truth will pass for it if you say it ad nauseum. How is it that Kashmir got on the world's radar and stayed there -- it is because Pakistani representation around the world has adhered to an incessant and tireless policy that affirms the right of the people in Kashmir to self-determination, whether or not the actions of the state themselves suggest this intention.

For much the same reason, there are no human rights violations in China that need examination by the international community, Russia is still a great power and a worthy member of the G-8, and Abdurrahman Wahid is a liberal Indonesian opposed to military power in his nation. Blah, blah, blah, ... let us do likewise.

We need to get our message on the map, and keep it there, phrasing it in language that is intense and grandiose, if necessary, for nobody cares much for muted voices of hesitation. The world's free nations have achieved much in the last century. In a mere 50 years of democracy, India herself has climbed out of colonialism's ravages and is poised to participate more in global affairs with moral authority and economic clout.

This is significantly and noticeably different from the turn of events in similarly colonized nations around the world, and is a pointer to the truth that democracy in India survives because the people have an innate and healthy respect for the mores of responsible self-government. It should be easy to think of countless ways of presenting this advantageously.

And, as an aside to those of us whose only relation to the above sentiments is by way of hope and longing, we'll work to get there. The need of the hour is to put one foot forward, and label it the right one. Even if we are not now the people we believe ourselves to be, we must be able to sense and seize the obvious advantage in portraying ourselves to be so. Conviction has a way of engineering reality.


Cleared for landing

The Solidarity of Democracy

Ashwin Mahesh

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