Indian foreign policy seems to have lost its way in neighborhood

225.thumbnailBy MK Bhadrakumar——

At a meeting with the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party at his residence in New Delhi on Friday, the functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in charge of India’s foreign policy have reportedly expressed “grave concern” over the government’s mishandling of the relations with Nepal. They seemed to blame the political leadership for taking the eyes off the ball, so to speak, in the hurly-burly of the Bihar election. The foreign-policy experts of the RSS censured the government for the current India-Nepal standoff, blaming the leadership for causing “an unnecessary escalation of the situation because of a lack of communication between the two governments”.

In a separate development recently, according to Delhi grapevine, a high-flying erstwhile RSS functionary seconded to the BJP, who doubles up as a virtual “shadow foreign minister”, was pulled up recently for financial irregularities while organising the cheerleading parties for Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visits abroad, including the spectacle at Madison Square Garden in New York last year.

Whether or – how far – the above two developments could be inter-related is a moot point. Suffice it to say, it is in bits and pieces that the public gets a peep into the strange ways in which the Modi government conducts its foreign policy.

Hawks reign

The Modi government has a full-fledged foreign minister and a junior foreign minister but they do not figure as consequential. The diplomatic missions in Delhi openly admit that they take the shadow foreign minister more seriously than the real foreign minister.

When the shadow becomes more important than the real thing, it is apparent that something has gone very seriously wrong – quite obviously, the falcon is no longer hearing the falconer. This is most evident in India’s neighbourhood policies with regard to China, Pakistan and Nepal. India has never before, perhaps, projected itself as a “national security state” in such a brazen fashion in its neighbourhood.

Unsurprisingly, the bureaucrats in the foreign and security policy establishment have figured out the “wind factor” and decided to bend low toward Keshav Kunj in Jhandewalan. They are of course savvy enough to fathom that in the present political dispensation, it pays to be a “hawk” and hang tough like hell when it comes to conducting India’s diplomacy toward China or Pakistan – and, of late, little Nepal too. The safest thing for a bureaucrat today is to be a hawkish “nationalist”. Under the roof of the “national security state”, you cannot go wrong if you are a “hawk”.

Benign Neglect

The result is plain to see. India’s relations with China and Pakistan have taken a turn for the worse through the past one-year period for no obvious reason one can discern. There are no Chinese incursions being reported from the disputed border; in fact, the media leaks from establishment have altogether dried up.

China is largely leaving India to itself and all that we can complain about is, arguably, that Beijing is subjecting us to “benign neglect”, which indeed hurts our vanity. But then, Beijing has its hands full in terms of its reforms and the acute rivalry with the United States.

No Chinese submarine has lately appeared in Sri Lanka or Pakistan. China is not fuelling the insurgencies tearing our northeast region apart. All in all, if there is an opportune moment to rev up diplomacy to normalise relations with China, this is it.

Yet, our national security state is not interested. When Taiwan can do business with China, what prevents India from doing so boggles the mind. But what is astounding is the deliberate manner in which India is going about vitiating the climate or trust in the relationship that had steadily accrued during the United Progressive Alliance rule.

In sum, the national security state will deal with China only on its terms at its own pace and time of choosing. The government’s policies towards Pakistan are almost ditto. India is not even prepared to talk with Pakistan except on its terms.

Akhand Bharat delusions

In a calibrated move to add more irritants to the relationship, India has lately staked its territorial claims to the Northern Areas and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and the RSS has conjured up irredentist visions of Akhand Bharat. The whole world seems to believe that our national security state is fighting a proxy war with Pakistan on the Afghan soil. And all one can say is that the ministers in Modi’s cabinet and other top officials have adopted a belligerent posturing that has no relation to ground realities or actual Indian military capability – even threatening to kidnap or murder Dawood Ibrahim or to teach Pakistan a “Myanmar lesson”.

Yet, the Valley in Jammu and Kashmir has been so very tranquil and free from cross-border terrorism – although the alienation of the people remains deep and almost unbridgeable and all that Prime Minister Modi can think of doing is to throw even more money at the Kashmir problem, which of course is not going to go away.

Meanwhile, Pakistan too has its plate full with problems of various kinds, including existential issues, and lacks any desire or capacity to provoke India. At one time in July-August, till the national security state summarily pulled down the shutters on talks, Pakistan seemed to signal willingness to discuss a moratorium on terrorism that addresses mutual concerns. However, like in the case with China, the national security state is simply not interested in normalising relations with Pakistan.

The road to nowhere

As regards Nepal, it seems more and more like a tragi-comedy. The clumsiness with which India has handled Nepal’s transition to constitutional rule has been simply appalling. It all started with the misguided push by the RSS to have the neighbouring country adopt a constitution declaring Nepal as a “Hindu Rashtra”. It was a road to nowhere and has only led to a series of blunders by the national security state in the downstream.

The South Block “hawks” have become so myopic that they don’t even comprehend that India will have a tough time to defend its own horrific atrocities – unmarked graves, war crimes explained away as “encounters”, military occupation, denial of civil rights and so on – in the northeast region if ever the yardsticks it paraded cavalierly in Geneva to berate Nepal at the United Nations Human Rights Council were to be applied to it fairly and squarely by the international community.

Indeed, what are we trying to prove in Nepal? That Nepal is a tiny impoverished country, which is highly vulnerable to pressure from our national security state? It is difficult to quarrel with the Nepali Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s remark that India’s blockade of his country is more inhuman than war.

The sympathy of the world community will only lie with Nepal as the humanitarian crisis building up in that country right in front of our eyes begins to snowball in the harsh winter months ahead and the western aid agencies and the UN relief organisations start expressing their anguish and despair about India’s stony heart.

The RSS seems to anticipate what lies ahead and understands that the law of diminishing returns is at work already. Whereas, it should have been the bureaucrats in South Block in the first instance to warn the government and its mentors that the national security state is about to land in a cesspool.

At any rate, now that the RSS has given the green signal for the national security state to patch up with Oli’s government, our hawkish bureaucrats should move – and move fast. Time is running out.

The writer is a former Indian diplomat.


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