Independence in conducting foreign affairs is highly cherished by peoples. But it should be recognised that ‘independence’ works in different ways.

Foreign policy is an instrument at the disposal of a country to protect and promote its national interests. The core of the national interest is constant — defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty, enhance the economic and social well-being of the people, promote opportunities for profitable trading relations with other countries, and exploit the ‘soft power’ through propagation of the cultural assets. While the national interest would be forever, its content will vary with time and circumstances. It follows that the policy has to be flexible and must keep in tune with changing international, as well as national, environment. Rigidity will ruin the very purpose the policy is meant to serve. Setting up a committee to define national interests would not necessarily serve much useful purpose.

‘Independence’ in foreign policy suggests that the government must take positions on international issues guided solely by national interests, without worrying about how other governments might react to its stance or what action they might take should they feel unhappy. In the real world, it is impossible for any country, however powerful, to follow such a purist concept of independent policy. George Bush tried it for eight years but failed in achieving what he set off to achieve and, in the process, alienated even close friends and allies. In general, it would perhaps be fair to suggest that the stronger a country — economically, militarily and socially in terms of its domestic cohesion and sense of values — the less difficult it will be for it to pursue a relatively independent foreign policy.

At the same time, the government has to take cognisance of the fact that people do seem to want their leadership to follow an independent policy; they feel resentful when they perceive that foreign influence or pressure is leading the government into directions that they regard as going against national interests or compromising independence. There is nothing unique about Indian public opinion in this regard. The British public lambasted Prime Minister Tony Blair as ‘America’s poodle’ when he led Britain into the attack on Iraq in the spring of 2003, even though Mr. Blair might have genuinely believed, as he continues to maintain he did, that it was in his country’s best interest to go all the way with the Americans. Democracies cannot be impervious to public sentiments for long; autocratic regimes might get away with it for a bit longer.

It is the prerogative, or rather the responsibility, of the government of the day to decide what is in the national interest at a given time. A successor government might overrule the decision or modify it. UPA-I concluded the civilian nuclear deal with the U.S. even though significant sections of public opinion, including, reportedly, some within the ruling coalition, were not fully convinced of the reasonableness of what they saw as the concessions the government had to make in order to secure the deal. Similarly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is pursuing a line with Pakistan which, he seems convinced, is in India’s — and Pakistan’s — best interests. Some other leaders might take a different view.

It should be recognised that ‘independence’ works in different ways. When India voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency, many people in the country were unhappy with it. It is acknowledged by nearly everyone now that a negative vote was not necessary to keep the Americans happy; abstention would have served the purpose. At the same time, ‘independence’ has also to be exercised against a non-superpower. If in the exercise of our ‘independence,’ Iran or some other country gets displeased, that ought not to influence our decision in a particular case. In a democracy, there might be an anti-U.S. lobby as well as a pro-Iran lobby; the government has to walk a tightrope. It would be a mistake to proceed on the assumption that going along with China or Russia or the amorphous non-aligned group is the only way to assert independence.

It follows that what is needed is pragmatism or realism. Preconceived concepts of foreign policy are not helpful. Jawaharlal Nehru fathered the policy of non-alignment (though if you ask the former Yugoslavs or Egyptians, they would not agree with us), but was highly practical. Recognising the importance of the Soviet Union’s support to us, including in the United Nations Security Council on the question of Kashmir, he somewhat muted India’s criticism of Soviet intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Indira Gandhi similarly did not join the universal condemnation of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan for pragmatic reasons, even though it made most people in India unhappy, since we did not seem to follow an ‘independent’ foreign policy on those occasions. One occasion when we should not have taken a so-called independent stance was at the time of Saddam Hussein’s attempt to swallow Kuwait in 1990. The notion of national interest at the time, namely the welfare of the Indian community in Kuwait, was flawed. In fact, it was clearly in our interest to have gone along with the international community in condemning Saddam’s action; it would not have, in any way, put the Indian community in the Gulf in any danger. The countries of the Gulf, particularly Kuwait, are not likely to forget our position at the time, though they too will not hold that against us forever since their national interests would demand pragmatism on their part.

Subsequently, when India was a member of the Security Council in 1991-92, we did manage to largely undo the damage by adopting a more realistic attitude and casting votes even though at times it was galling for us to do so. A case in point is our affirmative vote on Resolution 687 which, inter alia, arbitrarily and mandatorily, fixed the Iraq-Kuwait boundary. (It was anticipated even then that the problem was only being postponed. The present Maliki government of Iraq has reopened the whole question.) We expressed strong reservations about this provision of the resolution but supported it.

Thus, the national interest will always trump independence in foreign policy and most people who do not have ideological hang-ups would appreciate such compulsions. What is required is for the government of the day to make an extra effort to explain to the people what it is doing and why, how the national interest demands a particular course of action.

Some analysts have persuaded themselves that Sharm-el-Sheikh — the term has become a part of India-Pakistan diplomatic lexicon and does not need explanation — was at least partly influenced by extra-regional considerations. This perception is impossible to prove or disprove. It is, nevertheless, worth repeating that in a vibrant and alert democracy such as ours, the government must take people into confidence.

Media reports suggest that the backchannel diplomacy on the Kashmir question made a lot of progress. Pervez Musharraf even went so far as to claim publicly that everything had been sewn up and that the deal would have been signed had Dr. Singh gone to Islamabad and had the unfortunate-for-him-events in Pakistan not taken place. However, till date, the people of this country have no idea of the contents of the deal. Bits and pieces have been leaked and reported in the media, but cannot be given credence. Of course, the government would wish to treat the whole exercise as confidential, because any kind of publicity would probably kill all prospects of successful negotiations.

At the same time, any agreement would have to be shared with Parliament and people at some time; it would be worse if the suggested deal is discarded for lack of public support. Kashmir is not the same thing as the nuclear deal. It is a highly emotional and politicised issue on which all Indians have definite views and which impinges on our sovereignty and territorial integrity. The nuclear agreement, when all is said and done, did not get the aam aadmi involved to any significant extent and was difficult for most people to fully comprehend.

There is more to foreign policy than U.N. or IAEA. Of equal or more importance from the national interest perspective are the negotiations on climate change and the Doha round of WTO. The outcome of these negotiations will have an impact on India’s security for decades to come. Even close allies of the U.S., members of the EU, do not fight shy of taking the American corporations to court in WTO when hard interests involving jobs and security for their peoples are on the line. The Indian government has so far been resisting American and other pressure on the relevant forums and has refused to agree to any proposal which will adversely affect either our right to develop or the interests of our farmers.

‘Independence’ in conducting foreign affairs is highly cherished by peoples. Nobody is happy when the government is perceived to be acting to accommodate the interests or demands of other governments. The perception might not necessarily be justified and might be influenced by propaganda by ideologues of various persuasions. It is always worthwhile for the government to invest heavily in educating public opinion about the rationale of its actions whenever there is a possibility of people drawing such perceptions.

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