The king can do no wrong
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The king can do no wrong

The Indian understanding ? we may be overreaching if we think of the stance as a formally derived position ? of the US?s illegal invasion of Iraq seems to be based on the expectation of a short war that leads to America?s political suzerainty over that country (and others in West Asia). This, it is hoped, will produce tangible economic benefits for those rooting for the winner.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2003 13:24 IST
Anand K. Sahay
Anand K. Sahay

The Indian understanding — we may be overreaching if we think of the stance as a formally derived position — of the US’s illegal invasion of Iraq seems to be based on the expectation of a short war that leads to America’s political suzerainty over that country (and others in West Asia). This, it is hoped, will produce tangible economic benefits for those rooting for the winner.

The underlying desire is to be a part of the victor’s brigade while ducking the victory parade, if that can be possible. The relevance of keeping up pretences — in the light of this country’s history of championing underdog positions, its deep-going ties with the Arab world, and Muslim sensibilities within the country — is recognised. Hence, the occasional government statements suggesting that the war is unnecessary, or even that ‘regime change’ has no sanction in international law. These are, quite appropriately, seen as obfuscation, since there is no evidence of veering from offering the US unhesitating supporting.

India, unlike western nations, has had no history of being critical of Iraq’s political system. It has always done great business with the Saddam Hussein regime. Thus, the ‘dictatorship’ question is not an issue. The primary impulse, then, that shapes government thinking is the desire to please the US at all cost, in the belief that this will lead to economic benefits and possibly also yield political dividend in the context of difficult neighbours, Pakistan and, in the long run, China. This, incidentally, has been a cornerstone of the Vajpayee government’s foreign policy and is not necessarily specific to the Iraq question.

In the Iraq context, the anticipation of substantial post-war economic benefits is likely to be shown up as a gross overestimate, if experience of Indian businesses operating in societies in turmoil is any guide. Just consider the density or volume of Indian business activity in post-Taliban Afghanistan or post-Soviet Central Asia. Or, nearer home, in post-pogrom Gujarat or, indeed, in Bihar!

In arriving at its policy on Iraq, India appears to have completely overlooked two propositions. First, that most countries that share the US perception of the Iraqi regime (brutal, unrepresentative, etc.) have indeed thought it necessary to oppose the invasion. This suggests that it is possible to take a stand on principles, not least when the issue concerns the overturning of the present international system and the institutionalised distribution of power that goes with it. Indeed, many poor and hopelessly dependent countries have also done so. This is why — leaving the threat of veto out of the discussion — the US was unable to swing the needed votes in the Security Council to gain UN approval for its war plan.

This shows that a political position divorced from that of the US can be reached even by weak countries, although we may have failed to appreciate this.

Second, even if we were to be moved only by considerations of realpolitik, experience is proof that backing America all the way has not been much use in coping with Pakistan. This is because Islamabad has finessed us by playing the same card as we have. In America’s eyes it has not mattered a whit that they are a dictatorship and we a grovelling democracy, ready to please, any time of day.

We took a great leap of imagination and effected a breathtaking policy somersault when we became the first country in the world to welcome the US project on a missile defence shield (the star wars programme) even when America’s nearest friends were sounding sceptical or expressing opposition. Later, on the Afghanistan issue, we offered the US the use of military facilities ahead of the Pakistanis. This too was of no avail.

Being the first off the blocks to support Washington on two of its most notable international initiatives has not sufficed to persuade the Bush administration to stop equating India and Pakistan on the vital Kashmir issue. The official US position continues to be that Kashmir is disputed territory, whatever the diplomatic gloss that may be put on it from time to time.

It is truly remarkable that in spite of these rebuffs, the Vajpayee government should remain grounded in the belief that what is good for America is good for India, which is another way of saying that America is always right. This is,

of course, the opposite of the knee-jerk view that America is never right, but many may, indeed, be disturbed to note that the idea is proximate to the medieval notion that “the King can do no wrong”.

To be fair, in private conversations and through diplomatic channels, India has suggested to the US that it take UN sensitivities into account on the Iraq affair, and that the doctrines of ‘pre-emption’ and ‘regime change’ have the potential to entirely disrupt existing international arrangements. When, after Iraq’s defeat, the going gets tough for America as it continues to insist on the idea of ruling that country the way it sees best, we can be reasonably sure that India will seek to make much of tendering its un-public counsel to the US.

Needless to say, the protestation will find few takers. The reason is that the Indian government has so far based its stand not on principles, but on what appears to be pragmatism. It could not summon the resource to state publicly to the US even a fraction of what it said to America’s leading officials privately.

As for Iraq, the government has not revealed if it said anything at all to its representatives. In the Arab world in particular, with which India has so much economic, cultural and political business to transact, this is likely to go down as an instruction in how to deal with a country from which you have been picking up a good deal of your oil. The consequences can easily be imagined.

The prime minister announced a ‘middle path’, with government leaders desperately explaining that India would not take sides when two of its friends (US and Iraq) stood in confrontation. When asked if New Delhi would take a stand if America launched a war, they said this country would not let any single issue come in the way of its friendships.

It is worth pondering how such an observation would be seen from the perspective of a people about to be pulverised by a hyperpower that has a deadlier arsenal than any empire in human record.

It is noteworthy that the government took great care to avoid a parliamentary resolution on the Iraq issue for fear that Washington may be displeased. Later, after an all-party meeting, it did not even consider it necessary to issue a common statement with the other parties on the dangerous American misadventure in Iraq. It had correctly gauged the public mood and wished not to reflect it from any forum with which it was going to be associated.

In effect, the government inhibited the emergence of a well thought out Indian position (that is so clear and public as not to be in need of recall) on Iraq that would reaffirm not only established principles but also look to safeguard the country’s economic and political interests in a future world that is likely to be infused with political uncertainties on account of the brazen American action.

The basic template of international arrangements that were established with the UN 50 years ago has been rocked and may be in need of serious modification or overhaul. This may require the enunciation of fresh principles for any sorting out to begin. Can timid or supine states hope to have their ideas respected at a world forum where such an exercise is undertaken?

First Published: Apr 05, 2003 00:50 IST