Afghanistan: Consensus building on foreign policy

Afghanistan: Political consensus building on foreign policy

Political consultations on Afghanistan are reminiscent of those held on the Iraq war during prime minister Vajpayee's time in 2003

US Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) process evacuees as they go through the Evacuation Control Center (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 28, 2021. Credit: Reuters Photo

The Afghanistan conundrum has caught the world in a bind. The uncertainty over the fate of those living in that country and the challenge of ferrying thousands of foreigners stuck there after the Taliban took control engages everyone's attention.

 Amid an ever-changing ground situation in the war-torn country, at an all-party meeting on August 26, the Narendra Modi Government articulated its approach to this new challenge in India's extended neighbourhood. In keeping with India's tradition of evolving consensus on international issues, the External Affairs Minister characterised the meeting as everyone approaching the issue "with the spirit of national unity".

Over the years, bi-partisanship remains a hallmark of India's foreign policy, with successive governments taking leaders of political parties into confidence on issues the country faces. During the early years when the country became free, leaders questioned the government's moves. These ranged from allowing veto powers to the permanent five on the United Nations Security Council to routine executive action of posting envoys and the thought process behind selecting delegations for overseas engagements.

Also read: A digital Dunkirk: Veterans online scramble to get people out of Afghanistan

Those were early days, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid the foundation of the country's foreign policy, patiently responded to issues raised by members during debates and Question Hour and set a template. Interactions during debates and informal meetings such as the one held on Thursday allow governments to bring parties up to date with the latest information on international developments, share an assessment of the situation, the trajectory it could take and the way forward. These meetings also allow the government to acquire a sense of what different allies and opposition have to offer and respond to concerns.

Opposition and criticism

Over these years, the policy framework of the governments came in for a critical evaluation, with members in Parliament and political parties taking positions that were at variance with what the government of the day did. These primarily arose due to different perceptions. Yet, in the end, the effort was to evolve a broad consensus.

Expectedly, at the meeting on the situation in Afghanistan, leaders of various parties flagged issues of concern. From the pace of evacuation of Indians from the country, future of the operations post-August 31 deadline of withdrawal of American troops, possible rise of terror in the region or India's attitude towards a new regime in Kabul.

The sudden development in Afghanistan erupted days after the Monsoon session of Parliament ended. Had the Houses been in session, a significant development such as the change in Kabul would have taken precedence in the form of a discussion and debate. Different viewpoints would convey the concern and afford an opportunity for the government to clarify its position and justify its action.

Iraq war and Indian position

The last time a major interaction took place on developments in the region was in early 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the prime minister. President George W Bush of the United States had launched a military offensive on Iraq against the regime of Saddam Hussein ostensibly to prevent the country under the military dictator from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

War in the neighbourhood in a country in West Asia with which it maintained political, economic and cultural links put India in a dilemma. Around this time, the United States sought Indian troops for deployment in Iraq. Opinion on the issue in India stood divided both in the highest echelons of the government, with the majority of political parties opposed to committing boots on the ground.

Also read: Veteran Afghan strongmen to form new front for negotiating with Taliban

On the other hand, the relations with the United States entered a fresh new friendly phase and some strategic analysts favouring India take a favourable view of the American suggestion.

In his quest to explore a common meeting ground, PM Vajpayee called all-party meetings in March 2003. In his opening remarks, PM Vajpayee noted he always tried to maintain the tradition of consultations with major political parties on critical international issues. "This has helped strengthen the national consensus on our foreign policy." Later, a resolution deploring the US action was adopted. 

On the crucial question of sending Indian military detachment, Vajpayee used domestic opposition. India preferred to explain its decision in a manner that raised counter issues while not rejecting the American proposition.

Also read: US warns of more terror attacks at Kabul airport

There is an interesting tale in the development often narrated by the late CPI general secretary AB Bardhan. He and CPI-M general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet were invited by PM Vajpayee to take their view on the deployment of troops in Iraq. The Communist leaders were vehement in their opposition, and after hearing them, Vajpayee told them: "Comrades, speak louder (on the issue)." Having got the cue, the Left parties raised the pitch. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. 

(The writer is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox