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For Delhi, not Teheran

With endless problems deserving priority, the Leftist controllers of our destinies initiate a campaign that essentially supports Iran?s right to make nuclear bombs.

india Updated: Oct 31, 2005 05:19 IST

With endless problems deserving priority, the Leftist controllers of our destinies initiate a campaign that essentially supports Iran’s right to make nuclear bombs. A CPI leader explains that this is to restore our independence in foreign policy by making us “go with the developing countries”. Apparently, to follow your own judgment is to abandon independence, to follow the dictates of developing countries is to be independent.

Such woolly logic is one of several baffling deficiencies holding India down. No less alarming is the campaign’s display of our preference for irrelevancies over what really matters — ignoring facts to suit prejudices, and quixotically, pursuing vague general causes at the cost of our interests.

Consider the call to restore us to some imagined non-aligned/third world/developing group solidarity, specifically to support Iran. The countries so classified support the NPT, opposed India’s going nuclear and oppose Iran’s doing so (only one IAEA member voted in Iran’s favour.) What precisely is the consensus we should bow to?

Other confusions and contradictions abound. Whatever their faults, our Left parties are our most genuinely active secular force; yet they favour a fervently sectarian regime which represents all that the Leftists abhor. Having opposed our own weapons programme, they turn a blind eye to Iran’s; having opposed our ‘going nuclear’, they now complain that the government has accepted limits to our going more nuclear.

Next, the sentimental distraction: we have let down a great friend. A great civilisation, exceptional skills of statecraft, unmatched subtlety — we could, in fact, learn much from Iran’s ways but why overlook negatives? By any objective reckoning of our post-independence interactions, Teheran — whoever has ruled there — has hurt more than helped us. Providing Pakistani forces safe haven in its aggressions against us can be blamed on pre-revolutionary Iran, but the Ayatollah regimes have been equally harmful on core issues. Yes, we now have major economic as well as strategic possibilities, but all would be offset if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons.

Let’s not fool ourselves: Teheran’s nuclear deviousness is almost inexplicable except as a (barely) secret determination to develop weapons capability. Making excuses — that Iran has not been found conclusively guilty, it is only doing what it is entitled to, denying legitimate access forces one to deviousness and so on — wholly ignores the over-riding issue of India’s security. India too is denied legitimate access, but has honourably worked within the painful, unfair consequences, not gone the appalling A.Q. Khan route. The stark reality is: it would be critically damaging to India’s security concerns if Iran — or any other power — acquired nuclear weapons. There was thus a perfectly justified case for us to send the warning we did in Vienna.

For a people blindly, anti-socially, selfish in seeking our individual advantage in personal matters, we Indians strangely prefer letting some general principle mislead us on broader national concerns. The history of the non-aligned movement is full of India’s support for others to its own detriment, often so much more royalist than that of any king. To illustrate, Arab friends asked why we were going farther in working for some even stronger formulation in their favour than they themselves. Similarly, in various Gatt rounds, we often led the good charge, earning wounds long after our accompanying allies had deserted us with side deals or surrenders. A good dose of national ‘selfishness’ is overdue.

India’s problems include several so critical to our future that the entire political spectrum should come together in national consensus: J&K, the North-east, the frightening decline in the state’s capacity to do its duties and the consequently imperative need to restore professionalism are only a few that can’t be solved without non-partisanship. Our parties are not even going to win or lose elections by what they do on these issues. Yet, they seem totally unable to rise above trying to use even these as sticks with which to beat government.

Many thoughtful analysts genuinely, rightly or wrongly, believe our nuclear deal costs us more than we gain. But the only thread binding the political denunciations of government is anti-Americanism. Let us accept their view : America is the villain, the great hegemonistic-capitalistic threat to us and the world. But if so, can anyone sensibly imagine we will save things through non-aligned solidarity? Surely, the only answer is to make yourself a strong power — and who is preventing that?

To count in the world, as we all want our country to do, calls for hard thinking and hard decisions. We will face many more Vienna-type dilemmas. Choosing between voting for and abstaining required particularly fine judgment. (That China and Pakistan abstained was no model for us: guilty of clandestine supplies, they had no choice.) All the more reason, therefore, that there should be informed public debate — dispassionate, based on facts as distinct from prejudices, above all guided by India’s best interests.

As usual, however, our public is being confused by shrill, emotional, abysmally baseless partisanship in which our interests seem not to count at all. Nor, alas, does our amazing inability to project our case help; how often have we lost the PR battles in which others run rings round us (perhaps it is a civilisational trait: Hinduism does not believe in conversion, so don’t bother to persuade others to your view).

The fact is that India is no longer part of the developing world. Yes, we are unforgivably below in many key averages, but we have capabilities and interests that separate us. The tragic irony is that other powers are seeing us as something we seem unable to recognise for and in ourselves: we have all the makings of a major player — except an adequate sense of how to be one. As a famous statesman used to say: “I can understand India wanting to be treated as a big power; I can’t understand why you behave like a small one.”

Far from being surrenders to outside pressures, both the Washington agreement and the Vienna vote are exercises in fresh and independent thinking by a country coming into its own. Resisting the hardest pressure, of the dead hand of conventional thinking, we are finally breaking out of pre-conditioned policy-making and are behaving as a great power should. The coincidence of our taking this position while Washington is manoeuvring confusingly in relation to its July 18 nuclear offer has enabled diehards to distort the terms of discourse.

Like politicians elsewhere, American Congressmen have not helped matters by adding intemperate, even threatening, references to other issues. Criticism at home makes them suppose that we have succumbed to the pressure. This combination of misperceptions, provoking Indian efforts to change our decision and American hopes of influencing us, requires two-front resistance.

Nobody in his senses imagines the July 18 nuclear deal can significantly ease our energy problems, much less make us a major power. But it represents an unprecedented advance in America’s attitude towards our nuclear status. Establishing the benchmark of recognition by our severest antagonist that India — and only India — is so responsible a nuclear power as to be entitled to such recognition, is worth it in itself. Even if conceived by a minority, and driven partly by unwelcome motives, willingness by an American administration to change its laws for our benefit was unimaginable till it happened.

Certainly, all depends on how both sides now flesh out the basic agreement. Opponents at home playing into the hands of those abroad may ensure stifling before birth. But the greater tragedy would be the stifling of our emergence as a power in our own right by outdated pre-conceptions, prejudices and confused thinking of those who claim to represent public opinion and public interest.

The writer is former ambassador to Pakistan, China and the US

First Published: Oct 29, 2005 01:17 IST