Where's that spunk?

FOREIGN POLICY PARALYSIS

Once again our government has demonstrated its pussy-footedness in dealing with the other countries. A few days ago two Indian traders were taken captive and ill-treated in Yiwu, China. Our government declares that they are now ‘free’.

In reality, they may be free from ‘vigilante justice’ but are now facing a trial in a Shanghai court. Just a few days earlier to that, an Indian diplomat was physically ill-treated in a court of law in the same country.

There is no end to the pinpricks China wants to give us. China has been declaring and demonstrating off and on that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to it. It claims large parts – 38,000 square km - of Jammu and Kashmir as its own. To all these provocations, our response has been very weak.

India may be a power to reckon with by the size of its economy, military force or defence spending. However, her approach to most problems abroad has been meek and lacking in direction. For instance, the India-China bilateral trade crossed $60 billion while it was hardly a little over $2 billion ten years ago.

One must also note that whereas Indian exports to China were around $19.3 billion, the Chinese exports to India were more than double that at $43.5 billion (2010-11 figures). At this rate of growth, China’s exports to India would double to over $80 billion by the year 2015. The point is: India has enough muscle to warn the Chinese to behave and the latter have a lot at stake. Why can’t India use some of the teachings of Chanakya – the legendary strategist?

It is sad that our foreign ministry does not look either at our strengths or at the errant country’s weak points. There are some people who always feel weak. Likewise, India’s foreign policy planners and implementers seem to be ready to accept bullying from all quarters. And, this is not even a consciously thought-out plan or strategy. India’s external affairs are not only timid but also confused.

We have a huge workforce in the Arab world, particularly the Gulf countries – workforce consisting of not only semi-skilled or skilled workers but also professionals like highly qualified doctors and senior engineers. They are critically needed there.

These countries are highly dependent on this expatriate workforce. But, our foreign affairs ministry in India and our embassies in these countries close their eyes to the fact that even super-specialist Indian doctors are made to surrender their passports to their employers – and that includes the ministry of health of the respective nations. This is a matter of utter humiliation. Seizing someone’s passport is nothing but taking away his freedom. Any other country would have fumed and taken appropriate action to correct the situation. Does India lack pride in itself?

Tigers at home
We are tigers at home but sheep abroad. When it came to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2011 at Durban, we let the errant developed nations like the US and the countries of Europe off the hook of the Kyoto Protocol. While their binding was removed, we undertook commitments so as not to look like a ‘deal-breaker.’ Deal for whom? United States? Europe? How did it benefit us? Rather, how much additional burden have we taken on our heads, and, for what reason?

Our government’s thinking always is like: If the Arabs get annoyed, what will happen to the foreign money that is being repatriated regularly? If the Chinese government gets upset, what will happen to our exports to them? What will happen to our pharmaceutical, IT and ITES companies in China? We do not think from strength: Without our workforce what would the Arab countries do? If we do not buy Chinese goods, wouldn’t China suffer?

One wonders whether our foreign ministry does any thinking at all. It is easy to just do nothing – neither thinking nor planning and certainly not taking firm action. Our embassies abroad are found to be insensitive to the needs of our citizens in the respective countries. There is so much lethargy.

There have been several cases of maltreatment reported time and again in the press. The response to any call from the overseas Indians is belated and vague. When Indian students in Australia get mugged, beaten and abused for reasons of racial prejudice, the response of our minister of external affairs had been that of a series of declarations of ‘condemnations’.

These days, in the wake of Anna Hazare’s agitation, there has been much talk about Union government’s ‘policy paralysis’. Well, as far as the foreign policy is concerned, it almost always exhibited paralysis. It is not a new phenomenon. Any action involves some risk. Inaction is the path of the risk-averse and the indolent.

This does not augur well. Because if the foreign policy is slothful, the defence force of the country – despite its best efforts – would lack power in its punch. This is what seems to be happening in Jammu and Kashmir too. Our Pakistan policy and our response to frequently occurring terror attacks show an utter lack of direction. Much has changed in West Asia. New opportunities for tie-ups have emerged to which India has been cold.

With such befuddled, lazy and weak-kneed foreign policy, Indian citizens need to know as to why we are spending increasing amounts of funds on defence outlays. The official budget for 2011 was around Rs 1,70,000 crore. Is there any use of huge muscles on a frail heart? Instead, if a part of that outlay could be used to feed our poor, give them basic education and provide primary health-care, it would serve a better purpose.

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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