Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani and they made a joint statement de-linking terror and bilateral talks. A massive reaction followed. The media, desperate for sensational news items so they can compete with the reality shows, ran several stories on how we had not shown a ‘firm’ hand and the statement was seen as a loss of national pride. Our MPs, eager to leave Parliament like college students wanting to bunk classes, staged several walkouts (by the way, where do they walk out to?).
Our attitude shows we really don’t want to reconcile with Pakistan. Sure, we’d like relations to be better but deep down there is resentment and anger. More than anything else, we want to teach Pakistan a lesson. We want to put them in their place. Bashing Pakistan is considered patriotic. It also makes for great politics.
We may feel our PM made a mistake by agreeing to talk to them before resolving the Mumbai terror attacks case. However, let me tell you this — whether we talk to Pakistan or not, we are extraordinarily involved with them. We can cut off all contact; our leaders can exchange dirty looks with theirs and pretend they don’t exist. However, every single Indian’s future is linked to Pakistan and we all pay our dues in keeping the fight going. The reason is our defence budget. At Rs 140,000 crore (up to per cent this year), this is the most expensive government spending item, most of which is because of Pakistan.
For patriotic reasons, defence spends are never questioned. After all, how can you question spending money on soldiers who give up their lives on the border? However, the bigger question is, did they have to give up their lives in the first place? And the second issue we need to understand is, for the amount we spend on defence, what are we giving up?
Yes, there is idealism in saying — ‘we must have a strong army’. However, we are a poor nation. When you are poor, you need to be practical too. I think all Indians must have a re-think about three areas before we arrive at a consensus on our defence strategy.
Foreign policy: Our foreign policy document is not a statement of national ego. It is a document that should articulate how we can best use our relationships with the outside world for the benefit of the country. Forget politicians — I want to ask my fellow Indians — how badly do we want Kashmir? At the cost of making colleges for the young generation in the country? At the cost of not doing irrigation projects for our farmers? At the cost of not building roads and power plants? At the cost of living in high inflation forever? Because, even though it may not be obvious, these items are linked. The budget for defence is more than all the above items put together. Our government doesn’t have unlimited money, so what’s better? Keep the fight going and prevent progress — or, do what it takes to make peace, and use the money to build a stronger nation. The foreign policy document can play a big role in that.
Strategic defence alliance: The new globalised world has interlinked economies like never before. Nobody does it all by themselves. We can have an alliance with another nation if the aim of defence is to protect our borders. For instance, America has a big need to ensure safety of its own borders and cut global terrorism. We can work with them — yes, by giving them some access to our country. For us, it can save costs of protecting ourselves. For them, they have a better control over a volatile region. We may shudder at the presence of American involvement in our defence, but frankly what advantage could they gain against us if they help us protect our borders? In this technology-driven age, do you really think America doesn’t have the information or capability to launch an attack against India? Neither do they want to attack us. They have much to gain from our potential market for American products and cheap outsourcing. Well, let’s outsource some of our defence to them, make them feel secure and save money for us. Having a rich, strong friend rarely hurt anyone.
Good, old-fashioned peace: The land of Buddha and Gandhi seems to have lost its peace goals. We want talk to Pakistan — but more to put them in their place and shove our point of view down their throat. Frankly, such defiance may win claps from an audience in a cinema hall, but is no attitude for peace. We may think Pakistan is always wrong and we deserve Kashmir — but when we are in a negotiation, we have to give the other party some room. We may not be happy about it, but we can learn to live with it.
We need to have peace not only because it is a good thing — but also because we can’t afford to fight or stay prepared to fight for the next 20 years. We are hiring more security guards outside the house when there isn’t money to put the kids in school. The defence budget has to be controlled and with the right policies and attitudes, we can. Money spent on bullets doesn’t give returns, money spent on better infrastructure does.
And maybe that’s what our Prime Minister had in mind when he continued the dialogue. At least the optimist in me hopes so.
Chetan Bhagat’s latest book is The Three Mistakes of My Life