Foreign Policy: Hard Choices 

M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, February 22, 1989

At a time when peace is breaking out in many parts of the world, when one looks at India’s foreign policy, one cannot help but be struck by the lack of operational level methods of diplomacy which can take advantage of the more relaxed attitudes in world politics.

The process of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan is undoubtedly a major development in our immediate neighbourhood but South Block is reluctant to abandon the legacy of routinely supporting the Soviet position.  India’s freedom of action appears to be tempered by feelings of ideological duty towards Dr. Najibullah’s government when the sequence of events would suggest the need for a realistic dialogue with the Mujahidden, the resistance groups in Pakistan, Iran and India and Afghan political leaders in Europe and America.

Marked reluctance:  There is a marked reluctance in New Delhi to examine policy alternatives and failure to construct any new perceptions.  A realistic attitude would start with the recognition of the fears and suspicions of the Afghan people who have lost a million lives in the blood-drenched war which was forced on them on account of Superpower intervention.  There has been no public offer by India to help in the mine-clearance programme which is part of the United Nations’ plan to enable the Afghan refugees to return to their homeland.  In the operational sphere the picture will remain unfavourable to India as long as it persists in its identification with the regime led by Dr. Najibullah whose credentials for national reconciliation have been rejected by all the other parties.  The loss of diplomatic leverage by New Delhi will continue until Indian policy makers realise that their ambivalence on Soviet military adventurism was totally ill-considered.  The set of attitudes which reflected the missionary zeal of the PDPA and resulted in Indian diplomats clumsily supporting the interests of puppet regimes should be firmly put aside.  To ask the Indian Ambassador to stay on in Kabul will not overcome the inherent weakness and fragility of the PDPA regime.  

The point to note in considering realistic Indian choices in Kabul is that any tendency to play the spoiler’s role in the fulfilment of genuine self-determination for the Afghan people will only harm Indian national interest and may bring irrevocable harm to the substantial Indian population in Kabul.  An explicit statement by India supporting the removal of the PDPA regime from power would even at this stage substantially offset the costs imposed by the earlier flawed policy.

There is a lot of discussion in India in both official and non-official circles about new options towards the Benazir regime in Pakistan.  But again it would seem that South Block is reluctant to leave old patterns of thought and action.  If Gorbachev can beckon to the opportunities which Europeans have as dwellers in a common home, India could highlight the importance of regional reconciliation within the framework of SAARC.  Beijing has over the years pursued pragmatic policy options towards South Asia and its overtures to Pakistan and Bangladesh have been fraught with danger for India.  India’s attempt to secure a thaw in Sino-Indian ties at the expense of Tibetan rights may only work to the detriment of our Himalayan security.  As long as our China policy concentrates on short term interests and is guided by the pressure of domestic politics arising out of the CPI-CPM equations with the ruling party, we will not be able to tackle the central components of the Chinese strategy of interfering in the subcontinent.  Any concept of “a common South Asian home” can only be developed by nurturing a strong India-Pakistan relationship, and by preventing Beijing from exploiting the weaknesses of Pakistani politics.  This cannot be achieved by a massive military build-up on either side. 

Enemy images:  What is called for is a serious effort through which India and Pakistan can give up their mutual “enemy images”.  The best way to do this is to work for political solutions to political problems and to get involved in peace processes.  India, Pakistan and the other SAARC countries can emulate the Contadora process and set up multinational committees to monitor events which threaten peace and stability.  Instead of arming against each other India and Pakistan could begin the process of examining the requirements for a South Asian defence system.

Recently the European Parliament sent a delegation on a Mission of Friendship to the countries of South Asia.  In New Delhi during November 1988, the European Parliamentarians held discussions with their Indian counterparts on subjects which included: effects on Indian exports of the unification of EEC economies by 1992, the persistent Indo-EEC trade deficit, and the results of Gorbachev’s diplomacy towards India.  The delegation also visited the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu and expressed great interest in the framework of the regional organisation.  There is an entirely new spectrum of choices available to Indian foreign policy if New Delhi does not lose sight of the parliamentary dimension of SAARC.

Regionalism:  In the new era which is before us it will bring us closer to reality if we try to explain developments in terms of parliamentary structures and processes.  Regionalism cannot fill the void that has been created by superpower détente and withdrawal without involving the democratic processes in the regional role perception in world politics.  India and the SAARC countries can draw appropriate lessons from European experience and bring their parliamentarians together for similar missions of friendship.  Once mobilised Parliamentary diplomacy on a regional basis will help in propelling joint initiatives, which are outside the purview of bureaucratically-bound foreign policy programmes.

West Asia:  The conditioning effect of obsolete attitudes is also evident in India’s manoeuvres in the West Asian context.  The constraints in India’s approach to the Arab-Israeli relations or towards the Iraq-Iran tensions are largely self-imposed.  By now it will have become obvious to even the most hide-bound external affairs bureaucrat that it was a mistake on the part of New Delhi not to have supported President Anwar Sadat’s peace diplomacy.  In the operational context, India should upgrade diplomatic representation between India and Israel to Ambassadorial level and proceed to function fully as a factor in the new peace initiatives in the area.  We have unfortunately manufactured a dilemma on the question of diplomatic relations with Israel which curtails our freedom to play an effective role for peace-building in West Asia.  Although India has effective diplomatic representation in Tehran and Baghdad, there is a degree of unreality about our efforts for a lasting and comprehensive peace between these two States which have bled themselves in a protracted war.  There is an ever lurking sinister danger in the use of chemical weapons and missile warfare which characterised the intensification of the war.  Indian decision makers should begin now in right earnest to bring to bear psychological pressure for strengthening peace between Iraq and Iran in particular and in the Gulf generally since we have an important stake in constructive relationships with all these States.

Asia-Pacific:  Gorbachev’s diplomacy towards the Asia-Pacific area provides some valuable lessons for India.  We are currently witnessing innovative approaches in Soviet policy towards Japan, South Korea, and the ASEAN group of countries.  Even in dealing with Taiwan informally Moscow does not feel any ideological contamination.  India, although it has a powerful instrument of diplomatic influence in its cultural closeness to the Asia-Pacific area, has failed to adopt a self-assured policy.  A more realistic approach to Japan would sympathetically examine the Northern Territories question and also entertain discussion about the reversibility of the Tokyo Verdict in which the Indian Judge Radha Binode Pal had taken a visibly different stand.  New Delhi could also welcome the strengthening of constitutional government in South Korea and give up endorsing the cold-war attitudes of Pyongyang.

Kampuchean issue:  It would be realistic to recognise the weakened standing of Vietnam and it would be expedient to caution Hanoi against remaining intransigent on the solution of Kampuchea.  The unfortunate phase of Indian policy when we blindly supported Heng Samrin and refused to invite Prince Norodom Sihanouk to the Non-aligned summit must be seen as minimising Indian options in Southeast Asia.  Instead of playing off Vietnam and ASEAN against each together, India should work to remove the last stumbling blocks to the complete withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Kampuchea.

Finally, our Foreign Office must be revamped to provide a diplomacy which both in its style and its substance helps New Delhi to be a catalyst for regional and international cooperation.  The new era does not call for appeasement of China or of the US and the Soviet Union.  Nor does India have to lower its guard over Kashmir.  India is not a constrained power.  We have all the desiderata for a diplomatic strategy which combines power and responsibility. 

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