24 March 2014

The missing debate

T.P. Sreenivasan | March 23, 2014 

The BJP and the Left were one with the government on the Devyani Khobragade episode, at least in the initial stages. PTI

On election eve, the opposition has not challenged UPA on its foreign policy.

India is divided on many issues on the eve of the elections, but foreign policy is not among them. Neither the government nor the opposition is anxious to bring international issues to centrestage. The government has nothing spectacular to show in our external relations, but it has nothing to be ashamed of either. We sailed along pretty steadily in the turbulent international waters. We avoided forging alliances but reacted with a mix of firmness and flexibility as problems arose in our neighbourhood and further afield. Strategic autonomy is alive and well.

The trophy that the government held up in 2009 was the Indo-US nuclear deal, signifying a spirit of accommodation as far as the US was concerned. The medal it claims this time is for the uncompromising stand it took on the humiliation meted out to an Indian diplomat, even at the risk of vitiating bilateral relations. While the BJP and the Left opposed the nuclear deal, they were one with the government on the Devyani Khobragade episode, at least in the initial stages. Their only criticism was that the government’s uncharacteristic show of defiance was designed to win votes.

The public mood of sympathy for Khobragade has given way to suspicion, in the wake of reports about wealth beyond her known sources of income, her taking advantage of the preferential treatment she received in the service and her violating the rules on dual citizenship. Many feel, now that she has come back home and the New York court has ruled in favour of our position, that she did enjoy diplomatic immunity at the time she was indicted — the government should close the case and move on.

In the case of China, the complaint is that India has not been responding adequately to Chinese moves to encircle us and dominate the region. There was consternation that the numerous interactions, including those at the highest level, did not deter the Chinese from venturing deep into Indian territory in the western sector. When it comes to border issues, the strategy of building cooperation with China on matters of mutual interest does not seem to work. Border negotiations have reached the second stage, but no one knows how long they will take. Meanwhile, China continues to expand its sphere of influence and build partnerships across the globe, undermining our security and interests. But the government claims that there is no likelihood of conflict. The opposition has nothing to prescribe with regard to China, except to be more tough with it.

The issue of the Italian marines has emotional resonance only in Kerala, but there is no doubt that the Central government bungled in this case, torn as it was between political reasons for being soft on the Italians and legal compulsions to treat the crime sternly and in accordance with the law. The delay in framing charges and assigning the case to the right agencies has not covered our lawyers and investigating agencies in glory. No votes will be lost or gained on this account. Though the Oommen Chandy government in Kerala has won some brownie points by being firm that the matter should be dealt with legally, and not politically.

The “cherry blossom” time in India-Japan ties and the likelihood of a nuclear agreement may be feathers in the UPA cap. But the initiative came from Japan, and political and economic compulsions will dictate the trend. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is convinced that India-Japan relations will become more important than Japan-China and Japan-US relations. The opposition has nothing to complain about India’s Japan policy.

The improvement of relations with Pakistan is contingent on the dispensation that develops in Afghanistan later this year. The peaceniks are taking a break during the elections. No government in Delhi will make concessions to Pakistan. So the voices in India will only become shriller after the elections.

The theatre of rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region has been the biggest challenge for the government. But nobody has criticised the way it has walked on thin ice, not giving either side any reason to complain. We have joint exercises not only with the US and Japan, but also with China. Strategic autonomy will work in the short term, but it should not be forgotten that in the Cold War, we had no dispute with either side. Adversarial relations with China can’t be balanced by our affinity with democracies in the long run.

The government’s claim that its foreign policy has enhanced our external security remains unchallenged. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon recently said in Thiruvananthapuram that there is an “increasing dichotomy between the reality of how secure we are and our perception of it. One or the other will have to change.” He implied it would be easier for the opposition to change the perception than make attempts to change the reality.

The writer,a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA,is executive vice-chairman,Kerala State Higher Education Council express@expressindia.com

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