Five Facets Of India’s Foreign Policy Challenges That We Saw Last Week
India’s formal position on Ukraine, and the West’s sanctions on Russia, is a carefully thought out plan which aims to secure India’s interests and security without alienating friendly nations or compromising our national pride.
It will probably be some time more until the West fully realises, and finally accepts, the folly of its ways.
It has been another busy week in foreign affairs, with special reference and relevance to India. Five interrelated events transpired in quick succession, which merits review in an integrated manner.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Union Commission, openly declared during her recent visit to New Delhi, that it was the West’s intention to “bring India into our camp”.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave an interview in which he made multiple references to India, in the most curious of ways.
Indian Foreign Minister, Dr S Jaishankar, got a green signal to take the articulation of India’s worldview, interests, and self-worth to another level, which he did effortlessly, in stellar, polished style, at the 2022 Raisina Dialogues in New Delhi.
American sanctions czar and a Joe Biden favourite, Daleep Singh, who boorishly tried to throw his weight around while visiting New Delhi in end-March 2022, abruptly decided to take an extended leave of absence from official work without any clear explanation.
And everyone’s favourite ultracrepidarian, Shashi Tharoor, wrote a puerile piece in an American publication smearing India – generally saying how Narendra Modi’s foreign policy, especially on the point of Ukraine, was terribly flawed because it wasn’t adequately aligned with the West. It was wholly unworthy of an Indian parliamentarian and drew such a blistering, public put-down from Dr Jaishankar in Tharoor’s presence, that the audience was still guffawing long after the session ended.
Each of these episodes, in their own way, reveals a facet of the numerous difficulties faced by India at present, as it navigates its way through choppy geopolitical waters.
Ursula von der Leyen is a privileged dynast politician from Germany, whose family was so rich and powerful that she had to be hastily relocated to England in the late 1970s, because of a kidnap threat from the West German far-left terrorist Red Army Faction (known more infamously as the Baader-Meinhof gang).
Perhaps it is that sense of entitlement which made her speak so insensitively, and intemperately, of drawing India into the Western camp, to Indians, while on Indian soil, as an official guest of the Indian government.
This shocking display of utter tactlessness was bad, bad diplomacy any way you look at it, not to mention an insult to von der Leyen’s hosts. But perhaps, this is the best that can be expected from a mindset which firmly believes that it knows what’s good for Indians, and more counterproductively, that the Indians’ own national interests are better employed by conforming to Western interests, since those mean more.
Naturally, the Indian government didn’t react to this appalling indiscretion, but it tied in perfectly with what the Russian Foreign Minister said earlier in the week. Speaking to his state television in a lengthy interview, Lavrov quoted American Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, from her deposition at a Congressional hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee: “…we just have to keep working at this relationship and understanding the complexity of it, and helping India to really understand what is in their national security interests”.
Read that line again: as per US government policy, stated formally by Ms Sherman, the Americans want to help India understand what India’s national security interests are. Waah!
The undiluted contempt in Lavrov’s lugubrious tones for such arrogant haughtiness was palpable: “This is not said to some tiny island country, but to a great civilisation”.
He went on: “Now they are actively "courting" India. They want to involve her in their formats in every possible way”. And then came the kicker, when he asked if the West would speak to China this way?
What he meant, of course, was that this approach was not going to work. You could court India all you wanted, or speak condescendingly of her, or adopt a self-defeating ingénue-in-a-China shop approach à la Ursula von der Leyen, but none of it would have any effect unless and until India’s key concerns were understood and addressed.
It also means that the Russians understand India a lot better than the West does.
Dr Jaishankar underscored that truth when he cut loose at the Raisina Dialogues. Speaking as much to the world, as he was to his own fellow citizens of a deracinated Left-Liberal persuasion, India’s Foreign Minister explained the new Indian approach to engaging with the world: “We have to be confident in who we are. It's better to engage with the world as to who we are rather than pleasing the world by being a pale imitation of what they are, the idea that we need to get approval from other quarters has to be put behind”
Now, this was not exactly a new concept, but it was the first time that an Indian of such seniority made matters clear so plainly. This country was done with the Congress style of limiting its strategic moves, for fear of attracting Western ire or disapproval. Today, we were confident enough to secure our aims and interests without worrying too much about what others thought, by the simple expedient of showing that our intent was not mutually exclusive to that of others.
This point was evidently lost on American sanctions czar Daleep Singh (or maybe he didn’t get Lavrov’s memo), who waltzed into New Delhi with the swagger of an abrasive buckaroo, and warned us of dire consequences if we didn’t toe the American line on sanctioning Russia. The Indians didn’t react, but a month later, Singh is winged.
But really, Daleep Singh was just a minor factotum who got his Warholian 15 minutes of infamy; his departure doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things, especially when you can get an Indian parliamentarian to explain why it is in our best interests to subsume our vital interests to those of the West.
And that’s what the magazine ‘Foreign Affairs’ wangled – a long piece by the MP from Trivandrum, timed for publication just when delegates from a hundred nations were in New Delhi for the Raisina Dialogues, on why Narendra Modi’s foreign policy was wrong. Just in case readers missed the point, it was titled “Modi’s big mistake; how neutrality on Ukraine weakens India”.
According to Tharoor, not siding with the West in sanctioning Russia over Ukraine was going to hurt us. In an intellectual trapeze-cum-juggling act which would have drawn the admiration of a Mongolian acrobat, Tharoor argued that India was better off siding with the West, because otherwise, the Chinese would try and capture our territories.
Apocalyptic alarmism and censure infused every other paragraph; Russia was growing less reliable, and closer to both China and Pakistan. Apparently, we didn’t need Russia so much now, and Modi’s inability to understand that was marginalising India in the eyes of her valued partners. And for good effect, he repeatedly quoted Congress-era Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon (of Sharm Al Sheikh and ‘drafting error’ infamy) – a man who was appointed as India’s top diplomat in 2006 by Manmohan Singh, by an unprecedented supersession of twelve officers!
The only problem here was that the trapeze rope’s knots came undone before the third paragraph, the juggling balls fell helter-skelter before page four, and Tharoor had bent over so far backward to plug the West’s line, that you could have drawn a perfect circle by tracing his outline.
It was an unwarranted piece by any standard, and a pity, that Tharoor chose to please the people he adulates thus, rather than engage with them as the honourable member of an Indian parliament he is.
A fitting riposte to the piece was provided by Dr Jaishankar, at the Raisina Dialogues, with Tharoor sitting in the audience. The Foreign Minister was asked what he thought of Tharoor’s article. He answered: “… in fairness, I haven’t read it”
That’s when moderator Samir Saran interjected: “Shashi… wrote it at high speed!”
With a wry grin, Jaishankar replied: “Yes, I know…and I’m not sure I would understand it very much better after reading it either…”
The room collapsed in laughter, and Tharoor received a humiliating lesson in the truth: the age of brown sepoys trying hard to be good brown sahibs was over; the age of the self-respecting Indian was here.
And that moment encapsulated the varied foreign and domestic challenges faced by the Indian government, as it seeks to achieve national aims in the face of strong political and geopolitical headwinds: Ursula von der Leyen’s gauche blurting, Daleep Singh’s counterproductive strut and bluster, Tharoor’s obsequiousness, Lavrov’s equal understanding of what India was, and his contempt for the West’s clumsy, ham-handed approach, plus Jaishankar’s elegant enunciation of who we really are.
It will probably be some time more until the West fully realises, and finally accepts, the folly of its ways, and longer probably, before the likes of Tharoor shame themselves into oblivion.
But this much is sure: India’s formal position on Ukraine, and the West’s sanctions on Russia, is a carefully thought out, nuanced, part of a broader plan, which aims to secure India’s interests and security without alienating friendly nations, or compromising on our national pride.
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