Our Indian love of slogans as substitutes for thinking is matched only by our aversion to the lessons they should teach us. Palmerston’s insight — “There are no eternal friends and no eternal enemies, only interests are eternal” — is flogged to death, literally — as it fails to animate us.
India’s US nuclear ‘deal’ has provoked no end of vituperation about sell-outs, abandoning our security interests, indigenous potential or sovereign rights, etc., but the loudest laments are over damage to our ‘friendships’, notably with Iran, but China, Russia and the non-aligned movement thrown in for good measure. Correction: the most strident criticism is that we are becoming ‘friends’ with the US. Dispassionate assessments of interests again yield to emotional attachments and prejudices.
One obvious point made by several commentators makes no difference to critics: there is as yet no ‘deal.’ All that happened last week was that the US’s long, tortuous and, admittedly, painful constitutional process finally enabled its executive to negotiate a deal with us. Whether American legislators called for unacceptable conditions or whether American law has been modified sufficiently to fit within the contours for a deal set out in the Indo-US summit statements of July 2005 and March 2006, are questions arousing legitimate concerns, which government must, and surely will, address, if only in its own interest. But it is totally out of place to denounce an agreement that has not even been worked out, and to posture as patriots against traitors. Robust polemics can be instructive — and enjoyable — but not when they sink to personal aspersions. The worst decline in our public discourse is this exclusion of the measured expression of objective views by despicable name calling.
One other statement will, of course, also be held up for measuring any agreement — our Prime Minister’s in Parliament on August 17. It is frankly a pity any such statement had to be made. We have paid heavily in the past for trying to pin down governments in the midst of negotiations. “Not an inch of territory” was another of our high-sounding slogans, and press and Parliament outdid each other in cornering Pandit Nehru into such rigidities that no serious attempts to work out a boundary settlement with China remained possible. Governments must be held accountable for their decisions, and even subjected to the pressures of contrary opinions before reaching those decisions, but to bind them down or make them explain every comma and syllable even while drafting agreements, is to court disaster. The right half of Woodrow Wilson’s famous demand is fatally vitiated by the wrong half: ‘Open Covenants’ undoubtedly, but they cannot be “openly arrived at”. And the time to judge them is when they have been arrived at.
Which is not to object to warnings against wrong directions. Goodness knows that governments can be wholly mistaken, and an alert public, specifically its leaders, has a duty to call for correctives. But to oppose in the hope of blackening government is as pernicious as opposing in pursuit of alternatives which are even more harmful to national interest. It is in this respect that what passes for debate on the nuclear ‘deal’ is so saddening: beyond the petty carping is the failure to consider the key question — has the Indo-US initiative enhanced India’s international options or harmed them?
Wholly missing from our ‘debate’ is any sense of India’s power, present and, if we would but learn how, impending. At present we are in the strange situation that the world is looking at us as the new major player in international affairs while we ourselves are still unable to develop either the conceptual or the mechanical apparatus required for the role. In the former area, two realisations are particularly necessary: international equations depend on perceived affinities as much as on actual cooperation, and incremental advances can be more beneficial than holding out for ultimates.
Regarding the first point, the international community’s impression of growing Indo-American ties has already initiated significant shifts in key countries’ approaches to India. Our more neanderthal intellectuals, still caught in the Cold War time-warp, to whom America itself is anathema, basically denounce the ‘deal’ for that very reason, but the wider misgivings arise from a failure to factor in the changes in our international position flowing from other governments’ assessments of Indo-American cooperation.
Granted that the greater world interest in India — including America’s — arises from our economic progress and military capabilities (not to underestimate regard for what is seen as a remarkable political evolution), the attitudes of other countries are also significantly shaped by the increased interest in India of the world’s greatest — if most strained — power. Japan is a notable example, frankly acknowledging that its interest in us grows out of America’s; if we would but shed our blinkers, we would also see that China, so long looking down on us, is just as influenced, albeit in a different way. And not the least important of the changes comes from America’s willingness to end its historic opposition to our nuclear weapons — witness China’s offer of nuclear cooperation.
Critics consider it clever to dismiss the Americans’ interest in us as driven by their own agenda. What else are any country’s policies driven by — unless it be we and our ‘friendships’? The fact is that in the changed and changing world of today, a handful of policy-makers in Washington have seen that the rise of India will increase a commonality of objectives: Gulf security, Central Asian stability, changing power equations in East Asia, energy security, open sea lanes and a whole host of multilateral issues from terrorism to HIV-Aids — that on each of these, India in its own interest will want outcomes congruent with the US’s. Common aims do not preclude sharp, even extreme, differences over ways and means, and a powerful India will want to go its own way on many things the US will not like, but there is nothing wrong — or self-demeaning — on building upon the opportunities opened by commonality of aims. And even if US policy is driven by aims incommensurate with ours, there is still nothing wrong in cooperating where it serves our power. Indeed, it can well be argued that, regardless of the final outcome, the basic initiative has already served a huge purpose: for the leading opponent of India’s ‘nuclearisation’ to accept us even partially as a nuclear weapons power establishes a benchmark for itself and a new fact of international life for others as well.
While this broader picture needs greater attention, let us also remember the advantages, indeed the absolute essentiality, of incremental development. Here the lessons that come to mind are more domestic. Rajaji has just — rightly — earned fresh encomiums on his anniversary. Those praising him would do well to reflect on how bitterly he was criticised for his incrementalism: take what you can get and then build upon it, was his approach to the Cripps mission — and how different our history might have been if he had been heeded. It is not tactful to cite controversial examples when dealing with a current controversy but, frankly, the history of our nationalist movement is full of such opportunities missed — by all sides — because of holding out for absolutes, in the name of some principle which now looks wholly irrelevant. Let us add to our slogan list George Kennan’s admonition to America: “If we are to regard ourselves as a grown-up nation, and anything else would henceforth be mortally dangerous, we must... give up childish things... (such as)... our self-idealisation and the search for absolutes in life — absolute security, absolute harmony, absolute friendship.” Leveraging what you have is the basis of statecraft.
India’s opening up, like its economic rise, seemed to have become a non-partisan objective, except for obdurate, as distinct from pragmatic, Leftists. Like that rise, our fresh approach to international interactions carries as many problems as successes, but is no less welcome or necessary. One can only hope neither will be stifled by small-mindedness.
K Shankar Bajpai is former Ambassador to Pakistan, China & the US