A disappointing feature of India's foreign policy since Independence has been the almost complete absence of a meaningful debate about it. Early on, no one dared, within and without the government, to question the policy laid down by Jawaharlal Nehru. This continued right up to the present times, when the nuclear deal with the United States generated a good deal of discussion, much of it though on ideological grounds. Equally unfortunate is the importance attached to the desirability of consensus in foreign policy. Why should consensus, per se, be essential to the conduct of foreign policy?
Indicates 'strategic autonomy'
Eight eminent men — alas, not a single woman — have rendered a very useful and much-needed service by producing “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century.” The document gives us a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing and opportunities available to India in the years ahead. The analyses of the issues involved are sound and give a good basis on which to take the debate forward.
Why did they have to choose “non-alignment” as the title for their document? In this day and age, to talk of non-alignment is completely un-understandable. The authors explain that they use the term to indicate the “strategic autonomy” of decision-making which was supposed to be the essence of previous non-alignment. This is true only to an extent. The word itself was conceived in the context of the state of the world in the Cold War period and does not necessarily have connotations of success in foreign policy. It is not as if “Nonalignment 1.0” was a golden era for Indian diplomacy. Some of us are unlikely to forget that we did not receive support from a single fellow non-aligned country when China attacked us in 1962. Nehru himself might not have approved the use of this term if he had lived long enough to see the distortions that crept up in the practice of non-alignment. Today, “Non-alignment” sounds backward looking, not forward looking, as is the intention of the authors.
Nor was practising non-alignment a demonstration of courage on the part of most of its practitioners. The only country where it called for boldness was Yugoslavia which was in the direct line of confrontation between competing and heavily armed antagonists. We were at a reasonably safe distance from these lines of confrontation and it is debatable whether our non-alignment policy significantly helped in keeping the levels of tension in the world down. It is also not clear if Nehru wanted to build India's national power as “the foundation for creating a more just and equitable world order,” as suggested in paragraph nine.
Equally difficult to comprehend is the almost obsessive use of the adjective “strategic” throughout the document. Why should the autonomy of decision-making be “strategic”? I doubt if Nehru ever described our policy as the strategic policy of non-alignment. How does “strategic” add value to the unexceptionable concept of independence or autonomy of judgment? While deciding on a vote in the Security Council, the government of the day always takes into account all the relevant factors — the immediate impact on our interests, relations with other countries, possible domestic fallout, etc; it is not consciously taking a “strategic” decision. Even communications between the government and people have to be “strategic” — paragraph 260. It is as if adding the adjective at once lends profundity to whatever is being advocated.
The document is most useful in that it gives us, in about 60 pages, a good picture of all the elements which go into the doctrine of security, strategic or otherwise. It is not usual for foreign policy mandarins to think of internal security issues while pondering over their agenda. This has been necessitated by the increasingly volatile internal security scene of today which was not the case a few decades ago. In fact, the group could have done well by including an expert on internal security in its work.
The section on China is excellent and contains sound analysis. The general thrust is to take a cautious attitude so as not to unnecessarily provoke China. However, paragraph 33 calls for a reassessment and readjustment of our Tibet policy. But, how realistic is it to persuade China to reconcile with the Dalai Lama when the presence of His Holiness in India is itself the cause of much of China's unhappiness with us? Is there a mild hint of using the Tibet card? But it is immediately rejected by pointing out the negative reaction of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). And, is there some confusion? Does the election of a prime minister by the Tibetan diaspora indicate replacement of the traditional practice of selecting the Dalai Lama? Paragraph 35 rightly expresses concern at the asymmetry in bilateral trade with China, but it has the impractical suggestion that China's interest in our infrastructure projects could be used as a leverage to secure political concessions in areas of interest to us. There is also the factor of Indian corporate houses acting as a powerful lobby against permitting the government from being firm with China on matters of vital importance to us. This particular section ends with the advice to strike the right balance between competing concepts such as cooperation and competition, economic and political interests. It is ironic that our single most important challenge in the years ahead should be with a country with which we have a strategic partnership agreement. The paper rightly reminds us of the imperative need to work single-mindedly for the economic integration of the South Asian region. The broad conclusion is that India shall have to offer many more unilateral concessions to reassure our neighbours of our good intentions and to make them realise that it is in their interest to ride piggyback on the strength of India's economy. This has been tried in the past in the famous Gujral Doctrine. Let us hope that our neighbours will at long last see the wisdom in this advice. In general, however, experience shows that it is futile for a big country to expect to be loved by its smaller neighbours; the best that it should expect is to be respected by them.
Pakistan; nuclear energy
On Pakistan, paragraph 56 has the eminently sensible assessment that any improvement in India-Pakistan relations will be incremental and not a one-sweep decisive historical breakthrough. The broad thrust of the authors is that India must continue to take the soft approach. Paragraph 59 has the implied conclusion that the presence of nuclear weapons in both states has negated our advantage in the conventional field. Paragraph 61 advises that we must “ensure” that no serious terrorist attacks — defined as those with significant domestic impact — are launched on Indian territory by groups based in Pakistan. How does one “ensure” this? The authors' advice to maintain channels of communication even in the event of a major provocation is not likely to command consensus in the country, though in practice there might not be any other option, since not talking is, at best, a temporary response. Maintaining lines of communication is essential for us to convey unambiguously our “redlines”; it would have been useful if we had had an indication of what these redlines could be. There is the bold suggestion that we should directly engage the Pakistan army, something this writer advocated in an article in the Tribune more than a year ago. On Afghanistan, the advice, by implication, is that we should reactivate the Northern Alliance in case Pakistan attempts to subvert the legitimate government in Kabul after the departure of the Americans.
The paper is strongly supportive of nuclear energy as an indispensable element of our search for energy security. It suggests that the percentage of nuclear energy will go up from three per cent at present to 10 per cent by 2030, though some experts might not agree with this optimistic scenario. The need to make the “strategic” shift from the traditional sources to new and renewable has been mentioned; perhaps a reference to solar might not have been relevant. Similarly, there has been no mention of Fukushima, although there is in fact a strategic need to communicate with the people about the safety aspects of nuclear energy.
It is not clear to this writer why the publication of a “nuclear doctrine” is such an essential or good thing for us and why Pakistan not having one is “far from reassuring.” In that case, why should we have been so reassuring to Pakistan? Paragraph 235 frankly admits that the possession of nuclear weapons has emboldened Pakistan to pursue sub-conventional options against India and to place restraints against India's strategic response. The eminent authors have more than once cautioned against our depending on others for solving our problems either with Pakistan or any other. They are absolutely right. They also seem to be in favour of India becoming a permanent member of the Security Council even without a veto, a sentiment with which this writer is in agreement.
All in all, the authors have performed a most useful task by producing a paper which is at once lucid, readable and deals comprehensively with foreign policy challenges. It deserves wide debate among our parliamentarians, the media as well as think-tankers.
( Chinmaya R. Gharekhan, former Indian Ambassador to the United Nations, was, until recently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Special Envoy for West Asia. )