Indian diplomacy and the horses of interest, morality

While the strands of thought in Indic intellectual traditions are of value in today’s troubled world, it would be unfortunate if dogmatic assertions are made regarding these traditions

Updated - April 25, 2023 11:45 am IST

Published - April 25, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘India has been accused in the past of contradictions in what it prescribes for the global community and what it pursues itself’

‘India has been accused in the past of contradictions in what it prescribes for the global community and what it pursues itself’ | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

During her official visit to India, on April 10-12, 2023, Ukraine’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emine Dzhaparova bluntly put across the dichotomy of India’s pursuit of its interests in global affairs — as it always must — and, at the same time, appear to follow the path of morality, as a Vishwa Guru. She tweeted [Emine Dzheppar]: “Happy to visit India that gave birth to many sages, saints, and gurus. Today #India wants to be the Vishwaguru, the global teacher and arbiter. In our case, we’ve got a very clear picture: aggressor against innocent victims. Supporting [Ukraine] is the only right choice for true Vishwaguru.”

Echoing a wider view

Naturally, Ms. Dzhaparova was forcefully presenting her country’s case, but what she said cannot be ignored because what she asserted publicly, is, according to some observers, being articulated discreetly and privately by foreign diplomats. They are pointing to the wide variance between India’s desire to be a moral teacher and the cold pursuit of its interests in not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All this is meant to push India to criticise Russia openly for its invasion of Ukraine even though India has made its unhappiness with Russia’s action against Ukraine already clear, including through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-quoted comment, “This is not an era of war.”

India has been accused in the past of contradictions in what it prescribes for the global community and what it pursues itself. When India was severely critical of U.S. actions in Vietnam, and earlier the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 against President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, U.S., and Western diplomats often pointed to its relative ‘silence’ on Soviet operations in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and later Afghanistan. However, there was a basic difference between the dialectic of Indian discourse on foreign affairs then and what is now being projected as part of the Vishwa Guru project. Then, India’s foreign policy principles were rooted in the contemporary World Order principles. Now, the inspiration flows from the wisdom of ancient India, with the claim that its worldwide application would contribute to the welfare of the planet.

The West’s stand

India is not the only country that coldly pursues its interests while being critical of others for not adhering to global principles. The serial offender in this respect is the United States. While advocating democracy, it has sided with the most obnoxious dictators. Its (and indeed Western Europe’s) decades of support for the apartheid regime in South Africa is a shameful and hypocritical record of breaking every norm of the World Order. India’s opposition to apartheid and being at the forefront of the decolonisation process flowed from the principles of its freedom movement itself. However, the Indian approach then did not seek to play to any national constituencies, and combative language was seldom if at all, used especially at senior political levels. That has now changed. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has led the charge to forcefully point to the contradictions in Western prescriptions to the rest of the world in the context of the Ukraine war and the pursuit of its own interests. But his aggressive dismissal of Western liberal criticism of the Modi government’s policies goes back to 2019. A few months after he became Minister, Mr. Jaishankar famously said in the U.S. that India’s reputation was not made by a newspaper in New York. Mr. Jaishankar has gained enormous popularity in the country for his pugnacious statements. It is this that has led him to be declared by a national newspaper to be the third most powerful person in the country, ahead even of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Sarsanghchalak, Mohan Bhagwat.

Some Sangh Parivar intellectuals avoid the use of the word ‘Vishwa Guru’ in their writings but assert that ancient Indian heritage can show the path to lead the world out of its present troubles. They lay stress on Indian traditions of spiritual democracy, a celebration of diversity, harmony with nature, the framing of development policies keeping the interests of the poorest in mind, and the idea of a world as a family. It can hardly be disputed that these strands of thought were present in Indic intellectual traditions and are of great value to prevent the looming disasters facing the planet. However, there are two issues that cannot be skirted. One: these were not the only ways the world was conceived in Indic thought. For instance, the idea of a lawless world where the brave and powerful prevailed was part of the political idea contained in the term ‘matysa nyaya’; two: how often were these Indic principles applied in reality, for ancient Indian history was also full of turbulence and violence? Besides, did spiritual democracy extend to the social sphere? Yes, what India can be justly proud of is the continuity of spiritual traditions and the absence of dogma in them. It will be sad if dogmatic assertions are now made regarding these traditions.

It is impossible to straddle the two horses of interest and morality in the diplomatic sphere. Ms. Dzhaparova has publicly pointed out just that.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer

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