South Block must shift to civility in discourse

Columnist  | K C Singh

Opinion, Columnists

The fundamental issue is the methodology a government adopts to deal with domestic or international criticism.

US President Donald Trump

Barely a week before US President Donald Trump begins his India visit, the security agencies of both nations are busy visiting places the President and his wife Melania will visit for official functions and sightseeing. However, the background noise generated by US congressmen and senators over Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act persists. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar, after an unseemly Twitter row with celebrated historian Ram Guha over a claim in a new book on V.P. Menon that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru never wanted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in his Cabinet, found himself embroiled in a fresh controversy at the Munich Security Conference.

The fundamental issue is the methodology a government adopts to deal with domestic or international criticism. Last month the public discourse sank to a new low in the electioneering for the Delhi Assembly polls where the Narendra Modi government’s ministers, members of Parliament and other leaders used extremely provocative language. Led by none other than home minister Amit Shah, the BJP’s total rout showed the people’s total rejection of negative campaigning. Rather surprisingly Mr Shah, at a public function soon afterwards, had the moral courage to concede that. Surprisingly, suave former diplomat S. Jaishankar has also abandoned a lifetime of measured articulation of his views for pugnacious public retorts in defence of a series of divisive and controversial executive and legislative actions of the Modi-2 government. It can be explained as a recent convert to the BJP-RSS acting holier than others of the faith to demonstrate ideological affinity. It could also simply be an attempt to conform to the take-no-prisoners approach of Mr Modi and Mr Shah. It raises the larger issue of how controversial domestic issues are best managed at a diplomatic level. US President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick” remains as valid today as a century ago.

The latest fracas occurred at the Munich Security Conference last week when Mr Jaishankar shared the stage with US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, President Trump’s ally and friend, who was leading a 22-member bipartisan US delegation. He is heard distinguishing how democracies deal with internal or external disputes compared to autocratic regimes. He begins by wondering how Scotland’s demand for independence may turn out, before deploring the Russian occupation of Crimea or the Chinese “shutdown”, apparently referring to Uighur issue, before wondering how the Kashmir problem will end, adding “but let’s make sure the two democracies will end it differently”. This he felt was the best way to market democracy at conferences like MSC, where traditionally Russia-European Union relations get centre-staged. Mr Jaishankar retorted that “one democracy” would end it suitably, then acerbically concluding that the senator would know which one. Much applause followed in India for his sharp rebuke. Did Mr Jaishankar misunderstand Senator Graham, who was referring to UK and India as democracies, which dealt with disputes, internal or external, differently from China and Russia? So where was the need to get hot under the collar.

Perhaps the humility shown by Amit Shah in defeat needs to be emulated in South Block. Indian diplomacy has a tough task marketing normality in Kashmir when even European ambassadors – including the French and German envoys in New Delhi, after the latest conducted tour of Jammu and Kashmir, have accepted progress but simultaneously sought quick further steps. Obviously, the government seems headed away from such steps as two of the three former chief ministers and a former IAS officer have had the draconian Public Safety Act clamped on them. The Supreme Court is to examine the legality of that, in due course. Similarly, the CAA protests have not simmered down despite Mr Shah magnanimously offering to talk to whoever approaches him. The taste of the pie is, however, as they say, in the eating. On Twitter, the BJP’s first tweet, after Mr Shah’s public confession of failure over the sectarian and divisive electioneering in Delhi, still carried his insistence that the NRC is in the BJP’s election manifesto and shall be implemented in future. This tweet was later deleted and a fresh tweet without the last part about the future posted.

Thus, on the eve of the US presidential visit, the backdrop of India’s domestic dissonance will continue. Fortunately for the Modi government, Mr Trump is unlikely to be overly stressed about these developments, except so far as it impinges on Pakistani cooperation, which he needs to implement the finalised-on-paper Afghan accord. Thus, Kashmir and Pakistan will figure in private, if not another public Trumpian stab at mediation. President Trump will seek a mix of hoopla, with teeming masses by the roadside or in a stadium, a trade deal with tangible takeaways that he can brandish particularly for his rural, semi-urban base, and defence deals. He will pitch for exclusion of Huawei and probably put on the table some matching allurement of India-US 5G collaboration.

Mr Jaishankar is also expected in Munich to test the waters for the India-EU summit, which has not taken place for a year and a half. The sticking point would again be India’s domestic developments, particularly Kashmir and the lurking resolution in the European Parliament. India has to also start looking at post-Brexit European Union, as indeed Britain. Meanwhile, South Block has to stop adopting a pugnacious tone in countering criticism abroad. It is one thing to tick off Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he absolutely wrongly compares Kashmir to Gallipoli. Did he even realise that many valiant Indian soldiers had laid down their lives in that attack, which was a strategic mistake by British commanders? Does he even know that India is in Jammu and Kashmir after its legal accession to India, and not like Britain trying to counter the emergence of free Turkey? These are arguments that diplomats are supposed to make to neutralise the leader of a major Muslim nation.

But civilised discourse, at home and abroad, begins at the top. India’s diplomats will adjust quickly once they know that the powers that be are willing to cut them the slack to engage and convert critics abroad, not sharply retort and alienate. Ironically, US diplomats are facing a similar dilemma as Twitter-addicted @realDonaldTrump is normally way ahead of the state department in crossing swords and smashing past policy positions. Thus, India can look forward to two days of unpredictable fun and games as Typhoon Trump hits India.