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Very unrealpolitik

India’s initial neglect of the junta was followed by confusion and by ardent opportunism. Missing was calibration and calculation, writes AG Noorani.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2007 19:59 IST
AG Noorani

General Ne Win’s coup in Burma on March 2, 1962, “was viewed with great restraint by India”, despite the fact that the ousted Prime Minister, U Nu, was Jawaharlal Nehru’s close friend. Nehru had reacted sharply to the coup in Pakistan on October 7, 1958; less so, to King Mahendra’s sacking and arrest of PM B.P. Koirala on December 15, 1960 in Nepal. Nehru had directed the Foreign Secretary on January 8, 1961, to continue existing aid projects in Nepal but not undertake new ones.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee stated in Myanmar on January 19, 2007, “We would like democracy to flourish everywhere. But this is for every country to decide for itself.” But on July 16, swiftly after Sheikh Hasina’s arrest, the MEA asked for “free, fair credible and democratic” polls in Bangladesh; respect for “basic individual rights” and for “national reconciliation”. Shyam Saran was sent to Nepal this month to press for early elections there.

False claims to consistency or morality by the leaders foster a climate of self-righteousness that mocks at them when they act as they do. Debates between preachers of morality shorn of realism and of realpolitik devoid of morality are sterile. The dilemmas are as old as Thucydides and have been faced more intelligently and honestly by statesmen and thinkers than either school does today. A realistic morality does not imply amoral realism. Reverend Reinhold Niebuhr held that “an adequate political morality must do justice to the insights of both moralists and political realists”.

There is no escape from the human condition. How many would denounce a wrong at the expense of personal interests. British PM George Canning reminded the House of Commons on April 30, 1823: “How difficult it is to apply to politics those pure abstract principles which are indispensable to the excellence of private ethics.” To pretend otherwise is to imitate the cant of the Holy Roman Empire, he said.

A reputation for moral behaviour is itself a component of power and is in the national interest. Hans Morgenthau has best described the correct approach. “To act successfully, that is, according to the rules of the political act, is political wisdom. To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil and to act nevertheless is moral courage. To choose among several expedient actions the least evil is moral judgment. In the combination of political wisdom, moral courage and moral judgment, man reconciles his political nature with his moral destiny.” He added, “The choice is not between moral principles and national interests devoid of moral dignity but between one set of moral principles divorced from political reality, and another set of moral principles derived from political reality.”

India’s initial neglect of the junta was followed by confusion and by ardent opportunism. Missing was calibration and calculation. What have we gained by our own silence? Have we not sold ourselves short? The junta usurped power in 1988. India made overtures in 1992. Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit visited Myanmar in March 1993. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1995. Dixit praises it on one page in his memoirs, criticises it on another. The ardour for amity was inspired by three factors — help in quelling the insurgency in the North-east, oil and gas, and the China factor.

Pranab Mukherjee said at Bangkok on September 14, “We sometimes seek cooperation from Burma, but Burma has expressed its inability because of difficult terrain and lack of infrastructure. We have to live with the situation.” Asked what India was doing to ensure the return of democracy there, he replied that the “basic core” of its foreign policy was non-interference in internal affairs; never mind Nepal and Bangladesh.

This has yielded little. In 1993, Dixit was told that Myanmar would “never allow any permanent foreign military presence in their territory”. The United Nations was assured that it “will not grant military bases or facilities to any foreign power”. Has the promise been kept? Amrish Sehgal, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, writes that China is building a major naval base at Hainggyi Island since 1992. It will be capable of hosting large PLA Navy vessels. “Another strategic development in Myanmar is the mushrooming of China’s electronic intelligence system… It has a sophisticated listening post on the Great Coco Island, which can monitor all Indian shipping from Port Blair, Visakhapatnam, Kolkata, Paradip, etc. It has bases (as well as potential bases, since the PLA Navy enjoys right of usage) at the Myanmar ports of Akyab, Cheduba and Bassein, all of which it is helping to develop into naval ports with facilities” beyond Myanmar’s needs.

It makes little sense to counter China move for move. In September 2006, Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt announced after a visit to Myanmar the sale of 105 mm light artillery guns and T-55 tanks. On January 21, 2007, Mukherjee said in Yangon that India was willing to expand military cooperation. A specific request for military equipment had been received. “We have examined that request and decided to give a favourable response.” This was a major shift from providing training to hardware. The roots of the cravenness lie in that shift; to little gain, though. ONGC’s Videsh Ltd (OVL) and GAIL together hold 30 per cent stakes in the exploration and production of gas in the off-shore A-1 block. OVL expressed interest in the A-3 block also. Three gas fields in the sea in blocks A-1 and A-3 were found last year to hold considerable reserves. China entered the fray besides promising to complete the construction of the pipeline between the two countries in 18 months subject to an agreement for the sale of gas.

Myanmar floated tenders for the sale of gas to the highest bidder. The three bidders were asked to revise their bids. The Thais gave the highest price; the Indians next; the Chinese the lowest. On March 14, 2007, Myanmar signed an MoU for construction of two separate pipelines for transportation of gas/oil from Myanmar to China and also agreed to sell the entire natural gas to be generated from A-1 and A-3 blocks into China through the proposed pipeline — two months after Mukherjee’s visit. It was a reward to China for blocking a UN Security Council resolution against Myanmar in January.

Last month India signed production sharing contracts for three deep-water exploration blocks. (AD-2, 2 and 9). Abrupt U-turns are for irresponsible motorists. India has invested heavily in Myanmar. But transfers of military equipment must be halted.

The EU provides “much of the investment that has buttressed Burma’s dictatorship”. China wields decisive influence. No country can influence it more than the US. India must press for joint diplomatic moves for national reconciliation, which includes the army; precisely where, in a democratic framework, is for the people alone to decide.

The goal must be a democratic Myanmar guaranteed against foreign intervention and pledged not to allow foreign military bases and facilities. A round table conference presided over by UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Ghambari and comprising the concerned powers and all the elements in Myanmar national life can achieve that after civil liberties are restored. It will be a long haul. Success will depend on the unity of the countries involved as they balance incentives and deterrents to the junta while prodding it to accept a fair road map. India must always remember the cautionary maxim: gunah be lazzat (sinning without the pleasure).