Domestic ideologies in external settings

India’s articulation of some areas of the current domestic agenda in the United Nations General Assembly raises several deeply troubling questions

Updated - October 07, 2022 01:49 am IST

Published - October 07, 2022 12:16 am IST

At the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly

At the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly | Photo Credit: AP

National statements made by the world’s political leaders during the general debate at every fresh session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) are directed primarily to the international community but take into account domestic political and social constituencies. Naturally, the latter consideration should not outweigh or undercut the primary objective and direction of any statement. This time — it was the 77th UNGA session — the Indian statement was delivered by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on September 24. Mr. Jaishankar deserves to be applauded for the professionalism and precision with which he covered India’s positions on international issues. However, his articulation of some areas of the Modi government’s domestic agenda raises several deeply troubling questions.

Decoding the Minister’s ‘formulation’

Praising the “determination, innovation and enterprise of millions of ordinary Indians”, Mr. Jaishankar asserted that “They are rejuvenating a society pillaged by centuries of foreign attacks and colonialism”. Clearly, his formulation distinguished between “centuries of foreign attacks” and “colonialism”. Many in the Assembly chamber, who are unaware of the fierce ideological contestations under way in contemporary India, may have been left wondering at the distinction Mr. Jaishankar was drawing between the two. However, those who follow the ideological divisions in present-day India would have caught on to the distinction he was making.

There is little doubt that Mr. Jaishankar’s words “centuries of foreign invasions” could not be a reference to the Kushan and Hun invasions of India in the remote past. So, this formulation were code words for the invasions which began with the Arab attack in Sindh in the eighth century, but more specifically to the incursions into India beginning with those of Mahmud of Ghazni and later of Mohammad Ghori. The latter’s invasion led to the beginning of the establishment of centuries of Muslim rule in India.

Domestic controversies are best avoided

As far as this writer can recall there has never been a disparaging reference made to pre-colonial India in an Indian statement during the general debate, or indeed in any UN forum. The connotation of the word “pillage” is obvious in this context. Therefore, this is perhaps the first time that the basic interpretation of Indian history of the current ruling dispensation has been projected in the UNGA, although in coded language. This is a dangerous path to undertake for domestic controversies are best avoided when national positions which have to be, necessarily rooted in the Constitution, are authoritatively articulated abroad. As a former diplomat, Mr. Jaishankar would be well aware of the Indian diplomatic tradition which has always presented nationally unified positions abroad, particularly at the UN and in multilateral forums.

Mr. Jaishankar went on to say that India’s rejuvenation is taking place in a democratic framework and is “reflected in more authentic voices and grounded leadership”. This too is a sad, if not insulting, reflection on the choices made by the Indian people in election after election since the first in 1951-52. He obviously overlooked the fact that the Indian Republic introduced adult franchise and that power was exercised only through the representatives chosen by the people. Is it Mr. Jaishankar’s position, which he placed before the UNGA, that the people, through many decades, chose representatives who were less “authentic” or “grounded” when all of them came from among the people themselves?

While recalling the five pledges that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set before the people for the next 25 years, Mr. Jaishankar sought to show how each of them were relevant not only to India but also to the world. As a general proposition it can be logically and validly argued that on some issues, as the Indian population is one-sixth of that of the world, what is good for India is good for the world too. This would be obviously true for the environment; hence, it was appropriate for Mr. Jaishankar to emphasise “the care and concern” for the environment “ingrained in our traditional ethos”. But the general proposition cannot be stretched so far as to deny India’s great achievements in the United Nations itself. Recalling Mr. Modi’s second pledge, Mr. Jaishankar said “we will liberate ourselves from a colonial mindset”. To make this pledge relevant internationally, he added, “Externally, this means reformed multilateralism and more contemporary global governance”. It is a strange proposition to put before the UNGA that the Indian “mindset” remains “colonial” and needs to be liberated. It is noteworthy that Mr. Jaishankar did not put any qualifications in the sentence to distinguish between those Indians, for him, who have a “colonial” mindset and those who do not. He would obviously not accept that the ruling Indian dispensation has a “colonial mindset” so perhaps this sentence, as it stands, was a drafting slip but nevertheless it is now unfortunately part of the UN record.

Damaging India’s record

What is more disturbing is the proposition that the “liberation from a colonial mindset” damages India’s record as a pioneer and leader in the global decolonisation process in the 1950s and the 1960s. Whatever may be the view of the detractors of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi — and there is much in their political and governance records which is worthy of criticism, if not condemnation — it cannot be denied that they were heroes to the anti-colonial leadership in many countries in Africa and elsewhere. India’s role in the entire decolonisation process after the Second World War is one which this country can be justifiably proud of. An entire generation of human rights workers in the United States and South Africa were also inspired by Gandhiji and his non-violent anti-colonial struggle.

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Is not all this proud record and noble endeavour compromised by Mr. Jaishankar’s implication that Indians have a colonial mindset? Worse, does it not give an opportunity to India’s detractors to ask India to first get rid of its “colonial mindset” before seeking “reformed multilateralism”? The saying ‘Physician, heal thyself’ comes to mind. Words, phrases, arguments, exhortations are the tools of diplomacy. They cannot and should not be abandoned to promote domestic ideologies in external settings. Strong statements of a nationalistic flavour may win brownie points and popularity at home — and sometimes they are undoubtedly needed for diplomatic purposes too; however, facts, reason and logic as guides should never be overlooked.

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat

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