A civilised conversation on values
American leaders and officials are known to lecture the world on everything from democratic values to human rights to religious freedom, no matter how much of their own baggage they bring to the table.
It’s annoying to both friends and foes, and India has had its share of it as well. President Barack Obama called for religious tolerance during his 2015 visit. More recently, in March, defense secretary Lloyd Austin, the first Joe Biden cabinet member to visit India, said that he had brought up concerns about democracy and human rights in his meetings.
And most recently, on Wednesday, secretary of state Antony Blinken said, when asked at a news conference in New Delhi if he had brought up concerns over democratic values in his meetings, that “our shared values, our shared democratic traditions, the high ideals that we both set for ourselves were very much a part of our conversation today, as they usually are”.
Indians were prepared this time. But not with counter-charges and counter-criticism, as some pundits had suggested, citing Chinese officials who had plunged their inaugural meeting with Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Alaska this March into a spectacle trading barbs by raising persisting racism in America.
External affairs minister S Jaishankar had come to the news conference armed with a three-point response, and volunteered it even though he wasn’t asked specifically.
Number one, he said, India, like all democracies, is aspiring to become a “perfect union” a lofty goal set for the US by its founding fathers; it’s a work in progress. Two, “many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in the last few years fall” in the category of correcting historical wrongs. And three, “freedoms are important, we value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance”.
It was a policy-based response, and one that, it must be acknowledged, will not be endorsed by all Indians either in full or part, especially critics of the government. But, mercifully, it was nothing like China’s Alaska response, which, by the way, was a poor knockoff of a Soviet-era ploy that remains popular with the Russians.
Will it stop the Americans from lecturing India? Unlikely. But a pushback template is available for use now if needed.
One last thing, why are Indians so touchy about foreign leaders raising so-called “internal issues”?
The Indians have not been averse to making such observations themselves. “Prime Minister Modi expressed concern regarding the ongoing civil disturbances in the US, and conveyed his best wishes for an early resolution of the situation,” the ministry of external affairs had said in a readout of a June 2020 call between the Prime Minister and then president Donald Trump. Modi was referring to anti-racism protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a White police officer.
The views expressed are personal