National Interests and Image Abroad

National Interests and Image Abroad

T P Sreenivasan

T P Sreenivasan

The Tragic flaw of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was his procrastination which brought tragedy on himself and others in his life. If he had acted on the first indication he got about his mother’s perfidy, the whole plot would have been different. Nations also procrastinate on issues of fundamental national interest for two reasons. First, they find it daunting to go ahead without doing a full study of pros and cons and the opportunity is lost. Second, they unduly worry about the likely international reaction and try to make sure that there is general acceptance abroad of the decision. The best example of India’s costly procrastination was the delay in carrying out the second series of nuclear tests, which came finally in 1998.

After the technology demonstration of 1974, the scientists had been clamouring for new tests to create a minimum deterrent. But successive Prime Ministers agreed to keep the powder dry, but held back a test for fear of international reaction. PM Narasimha Rao began the countdown a couple of times, but the US Ambassador, Frank Wisner, openly threatened to impose economic sanctions and the North Block (Finance) overruled the South Block (MEA, PMO and Defence) on this matter and a search was on for a non-test option. In fact, PM Rao was convinced that his understanding with Clinton on nuclear issues had made the test unnecessary. It was only PM Vajpayee and his Secretary Brajesh Mishra who took a decision to test. Of course, the reaction was strong, but within two years, India became a partner in non-proliferation rather than a victim. It was the tests that gave India a new stature in the nuclear mainstream and recognition as a major emerging power.

Many governments have to balance domestic needs with international reaction before they take controversial decisions. PM Indira Gandhi sought to get some amount of international understanding on Bangladesh before supporting the liberation war there. Once she realised that India’s national interests should take precedence over the international reaction that she took the plunge.

Most democratic nations, which have a free press, cannot control the reporters and op-ed writers to remain in line with the good bilateral relations between countries. The good relations with the US and the echoes of the recent “Howdy Modi” jamboree did not prevent ‘New Yorker’ magazine from coming to the following prophecy of doom:

“The big question is where Modi’s campaign ends. The future does not look promising: Kashmir is an open-air prison, with Internet cut off, mobility curtailed, and soldiers crawling the streets. In Assam, the site of the new citizenship registry, the Indian government is planning to build a network of detention centres. The new path-to-citizenship law seems to herald a future in which Indian Muslims are accorded second-class status.” The New Yorker goes on to say, “The campaign waged by Modi and his fellow Hindu nationalists has done immense damage to the legacy of Gandhi and Nehru and their vision of a secular Indian state. As the demonstrations there are proving, democracy may be the one thing that can save it.”

It was never possible for diplomats “to lie abroad” for their countries and now, with instant communications, nobody should even try it. The best guarantee for sovereignty that the United Nations Charter has given to its members is in its Article 2 (7): “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter.” But India was the first country to argue that apartheid was not an internal matter, it was an affront to human dignity. Since then, other concepts such as Responsibility to Protect and humanitarian assistance have gained ground and no country can seek the protection of Article 2(7).

The US has a long tradition of watching the status of minorities everywhere and presenting their assessment to the countries concerned. Even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could not resist raising human rights violations after very successful visits to India. In other words, if any internal policy of any Government provokes protests and violence, which are likely to bring about misery to the people, it will definitely get an unfriendly reaction, even if it is a distortion of facts. We should also expect diplomatic fall outs like travel advisory to meet insurance requirements, cancellation of visits, etc.

In the case of the CAA, two Bangladesh ministers cancelled their visits to India after the Act was passed in Parliament. They anticipated trouble and it was not only a diplomatic step, but also the instinct for self-preservation. Same is the case with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who postponed his trip because he would have been at the epicentre of the hurricane in Guwahati. If the venue was anywhere else, Abe would not have postponed his annual consultations with India. This was no big blow to India’s Act East Policy as some newspapers made out, but a practical matter.

The UN human rights office issued a statement that CAA was fundamentally discriminatory and inconsistent with India’s international obligations on human rights. Two US panels – Commission on International Religious Freedom and the House Foreign Affairs Committee – have criticised CAA for undermining the basic tenets of democracy. These were to be expected, but they will not affect India’s foreign policy objectives, nor will they affect our interests in the countries concerned. Our place as a democratic country as a bulwark against China or as an investment destination will not suffer for long. We were able to withstand a bigger onslaught at the time of the nuclear tests, but survived it fairly well.

It is true that the CAA has come at a wrong time from the point of view of PM Modi’s image abroad. The world at large, which acknowledged Kashmir as an internal matter of India, have begun to feel jittery over the deteriorating situation in Kashmir, demanding a quick return to normalcy. Since CAA could wait without any loss to anyone, the Government need not have brought up this legislation at this time, however useful it may be to regularise the citizenship rules.

Foreign policy considerations should not inhibit imperative internal legislation. If the domestic consideration is compelling, there should be no hesitation in moving ahead and the external reaction can be managed. Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman should apply mutatis mutandis in such cases. The Government should ask the question, “Does this measure help in any way the poorest Indian, who may have voted for us?” If the answer is positive, go ahead and do it. India has reached a stage when its diplomatic heft will take care of minor setbacks. Indian diplomacy will take care of the fallout and things will be back to normal.

According to an MEA legend, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once called Foreign Secretary A.P.Venkateswaran and gave him a piece of his mind about the poor performance of the external publicity effort. Venkateswaran listened patiently, but said, “Sir, the image can never be better than the original. If you worry too much about the image, you will neglect the original.”