Indian diplomacy in times of flux: M.J. Akbar


 The birth of a publication is always a reason for celebration.  The birth of a publication at a time when the print media is under some strain is a cause for even greater celebration.

Foreign affairs and diplomacy are two of the most important aspects of government, have always been, particularly now in the current environment and context in which we live. Let me begin with a question that is immediate. What has happened in the last three years that is a significant change with the past? The first articulation of our foreign policy was made in March 1946 at the Asian Relations Conference and it is also an indication of how seriously the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took foreign policy. He had already begun, in a sense, the concept of multilateralism, established it with that conference, at a time when the post-war world was still searching for some way forward. At a time when colonisation still seemed one power that the world would not easily get rid of.

Now, it’s only in hindsight that we can say that 1947 was a seminal year because, in a real way, Europe’s colonial power began with Britain’s success in India and it also ended with Britain’s collapse in India.

After the British lost their raj, it was only a matter of time before colonialism all across the world collapsed. But in 1946, certainly the spirit of Lord [Satyendra] Sinha was more prevalent. As a law member, he’d famously remarked about Mahatma Gandhi that:I don’t understand what this man in a dhoti is doing, the British are going to be around here for 400 years.”

That was the prevalent wisdom and that was a prevalent assessment.  He wasn’t far off from what conventional thinking in 1917 suggested and yet, when Gandhiji started, the Empire could not survive more than 30 years. The reason was that a man had come who mobilised the will of the people against an elite. Previously, all the colonial powers had to do was to confront and defeat local elites in order to establish their expansion. They never had to deal really with the people.

Need for India-Centric Foreign Policy

Compared to those years, if I had to define the difference, it would be this: India has always had a world policy or a foreign policy, but I think now large parts of the world have an India policy and they have had to recognise that an India policy cannot be confused with the South Asia policy or a Southeast Asia policy or an Asian policy. That you have to now find a way of engagement with India, which is India-centric, India- specific. We, on our side, have – thanks to the impetus given by Prime Minister Modi – expanded the horizon of engagement very, very vastly in the last three years and those parts of the world which were essentially or basically off the radar, have now been brought into the compass of India’s foreign policy.

This has been read by some as a sign of assertiveness.  I don’t believe it is a sign of assertiveness.  It is simply a recognition of reality.

But one of the reasons why India’s expanding engagement has not attracted what might be called an adverse consequence is because, essentially, and on principle, our engagement is benign. It is not malign.  It is an engagement built on the basis which the Prime Minister himself repeats.  It may be a well-known phrase in India that the world is a family, it may be well known to us, but for the rest of the world it is not that well known and when he says it, he says it.

It is also a sense that we actually mean what we say and the most important aspect of our approach is that we treat every nation as an equal, every nation as a sovereign. Obviously, everybody is not equal in either economic power or in military power, but everybody is sovereign and this recognition and this importance is now building the platform for a shared worldview, from which we hope will emerge a shared prosperity.

 Dealing with terror threat

The biggest challenge to any search for prosperity comes from conflict, comes from war. The reason why terrorism is very high on the radar, or on our agenda, is not simply because terrorism is a very major threat to our country. Of course, we suffer it.  We know what we have to go through.  We know that the security of our nation and the security of every Indian is a primary responsibility and something that we have faced and we will face and we will fight and we will defeat.  But it is also because terrorism is one of those phenomena which is affecting almost every country in the world.

We must not be so naive as to believe that terrorists do not have political, or even what might be called serious, objectives. It is not simply a random use of violence for the sake of creating chaos. There is an objective, and the first objective of terrorism is to challenge the nation state.

The nation state, for a variety of historical reasons, over the last 100 years, has become the principal building block of an architecture of world’s stability.  Maybe I will not be so optimistic as to say world peace, because we can’t see too much of it, but certainly of world stability. The nation state is a basis for it, and people who advocate that the nation state be reorganised around, or communities be reorganised around faith-based space, are challenging the nation state.

The second, and this is I think as grave a threat, and is interlinked, is the use of fear in order to destabilise plural societies that have achieved internal cohesion, an internal peace; and to split people through suspicion, through fear. In the sense that the images you see on the internet of a man wielding a knife at somebody’s neck has more potential destabilising force than the actual number of people who were killed — horrifying, horrible and, however, unacceptable and brutal as actual deaths are – because the fear is the weapon. Fear is the key and we can see the impact of fear on societies and nations which acquired an internal cohesion after long effort.

But it is the what I call the benign aspect, or the positive aspect, of our thinking. One of the great successes of our foreign policy is our ability to work across binaries. Everyone sitting here will know exactly what I mean without enumeration, that even where regions, where people, are in conflict with one another, we are able to maintain relationships across regional antagonisms. That is not a fact which should be underestimated and that again, is a tribute to the values that found and shape our thinking. This is particularly important at a time of flux and a time of turbulence.

Flux & Turbulence

Now turbulence is not something that is happening only in the areas which are visibly within the conflict zone. Turbulence and flux are also happening in countries and regions where we take stability and peace for granted. I don’t mean to compare, but just look at some obvious facts which show you the nature of the stir, the nature of the churn, that is going on across the world.

India First, Indians First

One is often asked what do we do as diplomats and as a foreign policy team. The answer is not too difficult. Let’s take a very regular question asked, I think, by everybody, which is: Are you a pro Mr X or you are anti Mr X? My answer is very simple. It’s not our job to be pro Mr X or anti Mr X. Our job is to be pro-India. Once we have got that clarity, then it makes our function that much easier. But for that, you need clarity, and therefore, when we discuss Indian diplomacy, it is very, very important to stress that Indians comes first and diplomacy comes later. It is Indian first. It is India first, and then later on, what serves the national interest must take priority.

Quest for Prosperity

With the best of intentions, in the past, sometimes ideology tended to diffuse such clarity. But at least this time, the national interest has precedence both in the day-to-day tactical challenges, and in the strategic vision.

Having said that, I presume, we still might have to go around to answering a collateral question: What is the national interest? It is the will of the people. Very good, now what is the will of the people? That is something any successful government must first define, because the will of the people in a democracy shapes what governance is all about. If I had to define the will of the people in the first quarter of the 21st century, I would say that the yearning for prosperity, economic growth,  for India’s place at the high table of the 21st century, would be perhaps the dominant urge of the Indian people. That this is a century when India shall find itself again, after whatever may have happened in the past.

The past actually gets blurred against the challenges of the present and the future. So if that desire for prosperity is the basic desire of the people (which I had no doubt it is), then prosperity itself has to be redefined, because each word we use needs to be defined.

Prosperity, as far as we are concerned, is not an end in itself, growth is not an end in itself. Unless the first and largest fruits of growth go to those who need it most, that means the poorest of the poor, growth by itself will not bring us prosperity. Because prosperity has to be the elimination of poverty.

Without the elimination of poverty, we’re not prosperous. We have transferred the wealth of the nation to perhaps a marginally growing elite and that cannot be the purpose of the nation. It is the complete eradication of poverty, and taking the poorest and improving their quality of life to one which we can talk about with pride.  There is no point blaming the past. There is no point saying that the British did this and the British did that. The British left 70 years ago, 70 years is long enough time.

I know there are people in the discourse who keep saying, “Oh, in 1950, 70 per cent  of India was below the poverty line and today, the figure is only 30 per cent. We can take extraordinary false comfort from that figure. It is like all of us here have had three meals and haven’t had a fourth meal only because the doctor says it’s bad for you. It is very easy to take false comfort from such statistics.

But, if you are among the people who are still within that 30 per cent, you are asking a different question, which is, if it took you 70 years to come down from 70 to 30, is it going to take you 70 more years to come from 30 to zero? They do not have 70 years to wait. They do not.

This is where domestic policy and foreign policy mesh. You see a very strong element of our foreign policy is meshing of the economic objectives, with geopolitical objectives. You can see once again, in every aspect, the Prime Minister taking the lead in putting this right at the top and forefront of the agenda.

Friends & Enemies

Finally, diplomacy. I don’t need to describe diplomacy to a room full of diplomats, except to remind all of us that democracy is the art of managing friends and dealing with foes. And which of the two is more difficult? I’m not prepared to suggest because the management of friends deals with nuance, expectations. Sometimes even with the best of friends, a national interest may not coincide, and we have to yet find space for one and other, particularly if we believe that cooperative nationalism is the path to prosperity. Actually, dealing with the foe is often dealing with somebody who is one-dimensional and, therefore, black is black and white is white. But the shades and nuances of dealing with friends is actually far more exciting for professional diplomats than sometimes handling the objectives of a hostile element.

Peace or Peace talks?

Finally, I must say, the most important aspect of our engagement is language. If we do not know what precisely each word we use means, whether the meaning I have for that word is also the meaning that I have conveyed, and the meaning that has reached the other, sometimes the whole purpose of diplomacy can get defeated. So, the importance of the word. I’ll give you one example. When anyone asks for peace talks, it does not necessarily mean that that country is asking for peace and we have to calibrate the difference. Do you want peace or do you want peace talks as an excuse for a position that may be hypocritical? Reactions will be based on the larger assessment of what precisely you mean.

So, my friends,  do remember that very often, when we use words, it helps to find out what precisely you mean by them. But also remember that one of the greatest weapons of diplomacy is something that many people are not familiar with. It’s called silence.

(This is the text of the keynote address by Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar at the launch of India and World magazine at India International Centre in New Delhi on May 19, 2017)




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