COUNTER POINT Rao must break free from Nehru’s legacy

M.L. Sondhi

The Pioneer, January 31, 1992

The adage that a stitch in time saves nine seems to be lost on Indian foreign policy decision-makers. India was not able to react promptly and properly to the Middle East peace process started at Madrid last October which resulted from the new political balance created by the Gulf War. The kidnapping of the Israeli tourists in Kashmir had brought Dr. Moshe Yegar, the Deputy Director of the Israeli Foreign Office, to New Delhi in July 1991. This was an opportunity for the South Block to initiate a positive trend towards achieving the much needed adjustment in India’s West Asian policy.

But, instead, New Delhi reverted to moral posturing about Palestinian rights. This month it was the same Dr. Yegar who accompanied his Foreign Minister to Beijing as the man chiefly instrumental in opening up China-Israel relations to full Ambassadorial level. India was put in a quandary and our credibility was not enhanced by giving a carte blanche to Yasser Arafat to dictate the configuration of Indian policy on diplomatic recognition. To be almost the last in the queue to give full recognition is hardly an example of any new pragmatism that the government may claim for itself.

That this decision-making pathology is not radically different from what obtained when the landscape of Indian foreign policy was dominated by Jawaharlal Nehru himself is clear from the circumstantial evidence provided by Gideon Rafael in his book Destination Peace. Rafael’s summary of his conversation with Nehru has the merit of a persuasive exposition of the drift in Indian diplomacy which prevents us from charting a strategic course and deserves to be quoted at some length:

“India had recognized Israel in 1950, Nehru said, and indeed should have at that time established diplomatic relations. The sentiments in India towards Israel were good. Many people were keenly interested in its achievements… The trouble was that there was a strong Arab reaction to the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries… Nehru commented that he had noticed our remarkable success with the new countries, and was somewhat astonished that it included Cyprus. I told him how the little island, Israel’s geographically closest friendly neighbour, had stood up to the threat of Arab diplomatic boycott of the “either or” sort, with the result that Cyprus could pride itself in offering hospitality to the embassies of all states of the Middle East – Arab and Israeli alike. At this point Nehru with undisguised indignation exclaimed “What right have the Arabs to threaten an independent country with diplomatic boycott? I was startled by this manifestation of righteous anger and commented in an aside: “Indeed what right do they have to threaten any state?” Nehru’s remark was certainly amazing to anyone used to thinking in terms of logical sequence. Here I encountered for the first time that kind of stark ambivalence which, according to knowledgeable people was the key to the understanding of Nehru’s mind and policies. It seemed to be a kind of two-tier structure with no connecting staircase. When it came to far-distant Cyprus, a mini state with a population of 450,000, Nehru was a fearless admirer of its courage and a defender of international fortitude. But where India was concerned, a subcontinent with a population more than a hundred times as large, Nehru preferred evasion to valour and expediency to principles.”

These are harsh words for Indian ears, but even those who respect Nehru’s memory may turn to them to find out why there is contemporaneously speaking such a wide disparity between New Delhi’s rational policy options and the constricted agenda that has been legitimized in the name of adhering to the Nehruvian model. I wrote an article as early as September 1988, in which I called attention to the new Soviet initiatives under Gorbachev, and speculated that Washington would reach out to the PLO. I also focused on the political debate within Israel as it sought to reduce the risks of intifada and concluded that “a feeling that Israel has bitten off more that it can chew in Lebanon, the West Bank, or Gaza, colours the sensitivity of an increasing number of Israelis.” I, prophesised that “the time may come when the PLO may play its ‘Israel card’ and find a way out of the prolonged political crisis”. It was clear that the Arab summit at Fez was a turning point moving the Arabs to the path of negotiation in place of the application of force. The first desideratum, therefore, for Indian policy was to free itself from its earlier rhetoric and use its experience and diplomatic skill in conference diplomacy which would bring together the two sides. Regrettably, there was no further debate in the national press during the following three years, no proposals advanced for sound judgements about how to change our policy posture without offending the Arabs.

The dilemmas that beset Mr. Narsimha Rao are the same as those confronted by national leaders who have to overcome the decision-making pathologies of their predecessors. Mr. Rao needs a different and wider focus which is not compatible with an obdurate insistence upon adhering to Nehru’s legacy. Hopefully, the decision to normalize relations with Israel will mark the beginning of a new epoch of India’s foreign policy.
<< Back