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Global positioning

India has the capacity to bring balance to a chaotic world but it cannot do that if it does not have the courage to try, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Nov 02, 2007 03:29 IST

A recent issue of a news magazine proclaimed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s volte face on the nuclear deal had destroyed his credibility. The magazine would have done better to dig a little deeper to find out just how the deal was scuttled. It would have found that it was not Singh, but the Congress that did the volte face. In doing so, it stabbed its own PM in the back. The price that the country is likely to pay for this is too awful to contemplate.

There is a story making the rounds of the European Union capitals: Sonia Gandhi told one of their visiting foreign ministers that India could not go through with the deal just now because of the strong anti-US sentiment among Indian Muslims. The story may not be accurate. But the facts are right. Possibly because of the Left’s constant harping on the issue, Gandhi seems to have woken up to the fact that in its anxiety not to alienate the US during the long run-up to the 123 agreement, the government has taken foreign policy stands that have deeply angered Muslims.

For one, India voted against Iran in the crucial September 24, 2005, meeting of the IAEA board, and thus helped open the way to the imposition of sanctions on that country. It has also been noticeably silent on issues like the rising turmoil in Iraq, the repeated Israeli bombing of Syria, the West’s refusal to recognise Hamas’ right to rule in Palestine, the starvation of the population of the Gaza Strip and Israel’s frequent use of aerial weapons there, which kill more civilians than combatants, and the US’s presence in Afghanistan.

But a close look at the positions that India has taken shows that neither the Congress nor the UPA government has departed to any significant degree from any of India’s long-held positions. While in Opposition, the Congress stopped Atal Bihari Vajpayee from sending Indian troops to Iraq in 2003. Last year, it refused to join the Euro-American economic blockade of Gaza and continued to pay its share of aid to the Palestine Authority. Although it voted for the resolution censuring Iran for concealing a nuclear enrichment programme, it made a forceful statement rejecting the resolution’s description of Iran as a threat to international security. It has insisted that Iran has a right to enrich its own uranium for power reactors and, therefore, the Iranian dispute should be settled by the IAEA and not politicised by sending it to the Security Council.

But it has done all this quietly and non-confrontationally. There have been precise declarations of position, conveyed to other countries in writing, and mildly-worded press releases that have attracted little notice from a sensation-hungry press. But there have been almost no public statements of position by New Delhi for the media to highlight. Only on Iran did the government genuinely shift its position in 2005, but this was a price it knowingly paid to make it possible for the Bush administration to overcome the stiff opposition to the deal that existed in the US.

It is India’s retreat from confrontational diplomacy, not to mention rhetoric, that the Left has cynically, and opportunistically, equated with surrender. In the absence of a robust public defence of its positions by the government, most people, especially in the Muslim community, have bought this proposition. Nor can they be blamed for doing so. For, most of the US’ actions since 9/11 have been arrogantly unilateralist and have all but dismantled the Westphalian State system and its attendant international law. The government’s silence has thus been mistaken for acquiescence.

Gandhi’s volte face is, therefore, understandable. But what she seems not to have understood is that pulling out of the deal now will drastically reduce India’s capacity to influence major international decisions. This can only make the condition of Muslims in the world more precarious.

The US administration has pushed the nuclear deal though Congress, and is ready to lobby the EU and other countries to accept India as a sixth-recognised nuclear power not because it wants a slavish supporter of its policies. It feels that India can influence day-to-day management of an increasingly chaotic world. India has almost a fifth of the world’s population, it is one of the two fastest-growing economies, it is a democracy and it has made an enviable contribution to the UN’s peace-keeping operations. Most important, it has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, which has, so far, remained almost free of the canker of jehad. In today’s world, this combination of virtues makes India unique. No country is more capable of exercising as much ‘soft’ power in places where it is really needed than India.

And the need is acute. From the US and Nato’s point of view, a large part of the world has turned, or is in imminent danger of turning, into a breeding ground for a type of enemy against whom its awesome weapons don’t work. This is the ‘non-State’ enemy or terrorist. For the last six years, it has oscillated between preemptive force and diplomacy, but everything it has done has only made matters worse. One loyal ally, Turkey, is on the point of attacking another, Kurdistan, and anything the US does will only alienate one or the other. In Baghdad, there is a tottering regime that is unlikely to withstand the impact of a US withdrawal for long.

In Washington, Congress is likely to cut down Bush’s demand for $ 190 billion to fight the war there and in Afghanistan to a mere $ 50-70 billion. The war in Afghanistan has become a war without end, and the Taliban grows stronger every day. In Pakistan, the anger generated by the unending killing of Pashtoons in Afghanistan has allowed every mullah to pose as a nationalist and rally thousands of young people in the cause of jehad. Today Islamabad faces insurrection not only in Waziristan but in Swat, Malakand, Upper Dir and, in a more diffuse way, in other parts of the NWFP. Its capacity to suppress it is waning rapidly as its soldiers perceive themselves being dragged into a war against their own people, being fought on another country’s behalf.

At the other end, Israel’s Lebanon war has made the Hezbollah ten times stronger. Israel too finds itself, for the first time, in a position where the military might on which it has relied for 60 years is no longer capable of guaranteeing its security.

This all-pervasive loss of control is breeding panic, which is being manifested in the West’s attitude towards Iran. In the entire ‘Muslim crescent’, Iran remains the only powerful and organised State with the capacity to decisively influence terrorists. But such is the West’s panic that this is the power it wants to see pre-emptively neutralised. This is a suicidal course of action, for it will only complete the unification of the ‘swathe of terror’ and give the jehadis a quarter of the world to launch their attacks from. After that genocide will remain the only untried option.

The course on which the world is embarked leads to the destruction of civilised society. India has the capacity to give a less grim outcome. But it cannot do that if it does not have the courage to try.