Weak and clueless

Setting a foreign policy needs a statesman-like long term perspective and focus which have been singularly lacking.

How naïve and slothful can one get? It can happen only in this ‘incredible’ India. When the two Italian marines killed the Indian fishermen in our waters, the Indian government was dithering to take any action until a strong protest by the local Keralites and other citizens forced it to arrest them several days after the incident. While in custody, they were given better facilities than any other person under similar charges would. Then, they were allowed to go celebrate Christmas in their home country.

 As any fraudulent person would, they returned back to India to the not-so-harsh custody so as to let the Indian government’s guard down. So, they were allowed by the Indians to visit their home country once more; this time ostensibly for voting. The two men did not return. The Italian government has backed them and said it will not send them back to India for the trials. It is a copy-book case of deception. There is anger in the Indian circles. But, it is the anger of the clueless with no sign of any tangible action on the part of either the executive or the judiciary.

With the cream of India’s citizens vying for a position in the Indian foreign service, one would have expected a much better scenario in this not so complex a case to begin with. However, the way it has unfolded till now is quite pitiable. The ministry of external affairs has shown once again that its political bosses have no thoughts on foreign policy and are slothful about any issue that has no bearing on the expediency of elections. There is no fabric of foreign policy, not even a thread running through this country’s knee-jerk external affairs. A country of 1.2 billion – perhaps a little more – is tricked by two marines. This paints a shoddy picture of our country in the international circles. But when were we not taken by ‘surprise’? When former president of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, ran to our embassy in Male and sought shelter as he was to be arrested, we were surprised. It may be recalled that it was India that had backed former president Nasheed during the time he was elected; he was the first elected president of that island nation during 2008. The deposing and attempt to arrest Nasheed under some apparently trumped up charge is a slap on our face. We are as yet witless about dealing with that humiliation.

Maldives is a tiny country, but it is strategically important because of its prime location in the Indian Ocean. Remember that the US has its base in the Diego Garcia islands in the same ocean and not very far from us. China has been making inroads into Maldives, for balancing the US presence and for threatening India. Our foreign policy with respect to Maldives has been that of a ‘big brother’; we thought the younger brother was going to respect us anyway. It is sad that we do not have a foreign policy and if ever there was one it is not made with eyes wide open. Our external affairs ministry seems to be living in a world of self-delusion.

Illegal migration

Take the case of Bangladesh. We have yet to sort out the matter of the international border between the two nations. The people living in the small enclaves within the two countries are still suffering. Two other big problems have remained as they were in 1971, the year Bangladesh was born. One of them is regarding river water sharing. The government at the Centre blames the state government and vice versa. The blame game has continued for 41 years now. Then, there is the problem of illegal migration of people. That issue has never been addressed fair and square – for internal election politics.

Same is our story with other neighbours. We are perpetually in a dilemma as to whether we should back the Sri Lankan Tamils on the humanitarian issue. We speak of and pride ourselves on lofty humanitarian principles which we lecture on at several international forums. When it comes to tangible action, we dither, delay and sit on the fence. We are always on the back foot when our fishermen are shot at or are arrested by the Lankan patrol in the waters between the two countries.

With regard to China, our policy gets in several tangles. Perhaps our foreign ministry does not know where to hide its face on multiple issues that have eaten into our confidence and pride. The border issue with China is on the burner ever since People’s Republic of China came into existence. We could have sorted it out right at the budding stage when China was not a big power, but didn’t. McMahon line could have been settled long ago. We allowed the issues of the Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh and occupation in Aksai Chin to fester like a gangrenous wound. Huge dams on River Brahmaputra have been built in China, putting our north-eastern region in jeopardy. The region could face acute water shortage if the Chinese divert the waters to their fields, and could face flash floods if the Chinese dams release the waters for whatever reason.

One does not need to get into our relations with Pakistan. It has been exporting terror to our country and we have not been effective in dealing with it. Our responses to foreign affairs are weak, sluggish and directionless because our governments at the Centre have been caught up in very short term thinking and, many a time, in party-centric issues. Setting a foreign policy needs a statesman-like long term perspective and focus which have been singularly lacking.

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

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