VP & Foreign Policy


The Hindustan Times, February 8, 1990

There is a valuable lesson in the experience of Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of the Hungarian developments in 1956.  Krishna Menon’s evaluations were intellectually and emotionally pro-Soviet to the extent that he could not make a realistic judgment on the revolutionary events in Budapest.  It was common knowledge in the South Block that Nehru was not happy with some of the formulations used by Menon to explain away the Soviet intervention.  There was always a certain tactical caution which Nehru exercised in maintaining the right-left balance inside his government, and Nehru always felt that Menon was ideologically closer to him than the others.  Without directly opposing Krishna Menon on Hungary, Nehru introduced an alternative perception in India’s public diplomacy by hailing the Budapest uprising as a popular revolution in his speech to the UNESCO meet in New Delhi.  A further realistic note was introduced in Indian thinking by the report on the Hungarian developments submitted by Nehru’s personal representative, Dr. Jagannath Khosla, who was sent to Budapest from Prague and by Nehru’s reference on the floor of Parliament to the high quality performance of the relatively junior diplomat M.A. Rahman.

Practical basis:  The above pattern indicates that even when the specific conduct of foreign policy is left to a minister in an issue area, the Prime Minister has from time to time necessarily to inject an overall conception against which policy decisions are judged.  It needs to be reiterated that while ministers should be left to their own resources and the Prime Minister should not personalise political affairs, yet it is critically important in the sphere of foreign policy that the Prime Minister himself provides theoretical coherence to the country’s external affairs on both a political and practical basis.

The V.P. Singh government must be able to do three things simultaneously if India is to achieve effective control over the effects of rapid change in the international and regional environment: (1) remove ideological stereotypes which coloured perceptions during the four decades in which bloc-confrontation greatly exacerbated international conflicts; (2) supply a conceptual alternative to the fundamentalisms which may create vicious and destabilising circles threatening India’s open and democratic society; and (3) sustain a role of peace-building by favouring peaceful settlement of differences in areas which can feed India’s own anxieties and discords.

Many objectives:  The attainability of these aims is not dependent solely on the mechanics of the foreign policy process within the Ministry of External Affairs.  The Foreign Minister and the bureaucracy he heads can of course pursue the interests of national security and political strategy once the political axioms are laid down by the Prime Minister.  But when a watershed has been reached in world politics as is the case today a vigorous and communicative role by the Prime Minister in the area of external affairs is unavoidable.  The de-ideologisation of foreign policy in the Soviet Union by Gorbachev has important consequences for India where the Soviet model had become a byword for infallibility.  It is necessary for Mr. V.P. Singh as the new leader to ensure that ideological solutions to political dilemmas are replaced by pragmatic perspectives which are less subject to irrational and dogmatic conclusions.

International Terrorism

The Indian polity needs a serious response to the danger which arises out of the enormous military, political and diplomatic power which fundamentalism can mobilise against an open and democratic society like ours.  The warning signals of international terrorism aided and abetted by fundamentalism must be heeded.  The Prime Minister can illuminate India’s conceptual alternative to fundamentalism by making important foreign policy pronouncements which affirm India’s commitment to pluralism and freedom without any apology or reservation.

Even with the most skilful diplomacy the Ministry of External Affairs will tend to favour the status quo in regions like the Middle East.  We need only recall how during Morarji Desai’s Prime Ministership, the Foreign Office opposed the Camp David peace process and India shifted away from its traditional closeness to Egypt.  The major thrust of South Block’s argument was that this course of action was necessary in order to eradicate any ambiguity about our support to the Arab cause.  Yet today we can see that the benefits derived from our stand against the US–Egyptian strategy were outweighed by the drawbacks of an approach which was not based on a realistic assessment of the sub-regional interaction patterns in the Middle East.  It should not require a great leap of imagination to grasp that today the need to revive the peace process between the Arabs and the Israelis presents an opportunity to an Indian Prime Minister to enhance his image (along with that of his country) as a peace-maker.  By refusing to have diplomatic relations with Israel at the Ambassadorial level, South Block is depriving itself of an effective tool of peace diplomacy.  India’s one-sided involvement in the conflict-ridden Arab-Israel relationship has led to a general consensus that New Delhi either by design or default pursues appeasement.  Consequently Pakistan can build up anti-Indian pressures and crusades by playing upon the idiosyncrasies that have prevented the Islamic countries from building a peace order.  Indian foreign office officials tell us that there is no need to give up time-tested policies and refuse to reflect deeply on the new opportunities which the Middle East presents to India.  

Peace process

The Soviet Union and East European countries have shown their willingness to give greater impetus to the peace process by resuming political and economic relations with Israel.  South Block, however, continues to refuse any serious dealings either with the Israeli consulate in Bombay or through exchange of special envoys directly with Israel.

The recent impasse in Indian-Iranian relations has implications for New Delhi beyond the immediate political context.  The most certain way to encourage Middle Eastern powers to gang up against India would be for New Delhi to allow them to treat us with condescension while our support to them is taken for granted.  Mr. V.P. Singh can begin to signal a change in the Indian attitude by declaring his intention to engage in a wide-ranging dialogue for peace between Arabs and Israelis.  He can begin by affirming India’s support for the just and legitimate rights for Palestinian Arabs and emphasise the special importance for India of the favourable development of relations among all the states in the Middle East including Israel.  Although South Block fears a groundswell of Arab protest if New Delhi upgrades its diplomatic relations with Israel, the implementation of this step would provide an enduring and increasing sense of stability in India’s relationship with the region.

Indian wisdom: 

A judicious balancing of commitments in the Middle East will provide significant incentives to many of the regional states to regard Indian motives and the wisdom of Indian policies in Kashmir and elsewhere with respect.  The South Block die-hard will of course argue that the time is not propitious for New Delhi to seek a major readjustment of Indian policy since the new Government has yet to get settled.  Mr. V.P. Singh should be sceptical about such advice since the breathing period recommended to him can only constrict his opportunities later on.  By devoting himself earnestly to the resolution of regional conflicts in the Middle East (or in Southeast Asia), Mr. V.P. Singh can take himself a long way to projecting India as a stabilising force along the arc of crisis.  He would also have laid the ground-work for a new and balanced relationship with the United States and the Soviet Union.  At the same time he would have deterred Pakistani and Iranian expansionary designs with the minimum of cost.

To sum up, having established a general orientation for his ministers to look after their portfolios with a certain measure of independence which is basic to the Cabinet system of government, Mr. V.P. Singh would be well advised to lay the foundation for the substantive development of India’s international relations in an era of rapid change which promises tangible benefits to India if we can give up approaches and strategies which are now outdated. 
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