India was no lamb and was often the contrarian voice
Despite its many failings and unrealised potential, India has always evoked the image of being a “moral nation” internationally. The foundational “Idea of India” was seeded by Mahatma Gandhi himself, embedded by Dr B.R. Ambedkar in the Constitution, and nurtured beyond partisanship by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, and in later decades by P.V. Narasimha Rao, Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh with a common denominational tenor and phraseology, that always conjured the high ground in international perceptions.
Importantly, India was no lamb and was often the contrarian voice. It daringly mooted the Non-Aligned Movement, fought against the Chinese and Pakistanis repeatedly, ensured the birth of Bangladesh, conducted nuclear tests and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Yet, the underpinned morality of India on contentious issues was so powerful that it frustrated hard-nosed realpolitik practitioners like Henry Kissinger who said in a leaked transcript around the 1971 saga, “The Indians are bastards”, and conceded, “They are the most aggressive goddam people around”! In its own way, and without succumbing to the temptations of feigning “muscularity”, India pursued its own agenda, forcefully and effectively.
This patent Indian style continued under Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA government of 1998-2004. He too faced extreme headwinds from the West when India re-conducted nuclear tests and faced sanctions. Domestically too, Vajpayee had to manage many temperamental satraps who were part of his coalition, which he did with seamless dexterity and aplomb, as the first full-term non-Congress government. The invisible tenacity was couched under the civilisational face of a man of letters who exemplified the “Idea of India”, just as his predecessors had done. Vajpayee was after all known as a “Nehruvian in a non-Congress party”.
Partisanship and personal ideologies aside, India benefited from this consistent approach of measure, dignity, and restraint that behoved a 5,000-year-old civilisation. As a “moral” sovereign, India could be strong without looking roughish, it could be assertive without looking abrasive, and it could be confident without resorting to shrill repartees. India simply needed no empty posturing.
One reason India successfully maintained its moral anchorage was the presence of some of the most functionally erudite, competent and empowered professionals at the pinnacle of the ministry of external affairs. The bluster and din of competitive domestic politics aside, the MEA was allowed to delink its daily spiel and conduct its business with the required diplomatese, shorn of jingoism or brouhaha of partisan agendas. Prime Ministers of all persuasions protected the independence and restraint of Indian diplomacy with mature giants like Yashwantrao Chavan, K. Natwar Singh, S.M. Krishna, Jaswant Singh, Sushma Swaraj and others who ensured the most balanced and efficacious discourse, whatever the issue. The theatrics and sabre-rattling of domestic politics was avoided.
A fine example of the way Indian diplomacy was conducted was when India reengaged with the United States in 1998, following the sanctions (when China wasn’t a primary US obsession like now, and Washington started flexing Kashmir and CTBT to boot). Jaswant Singh had held 11 strategic dialogues with Strobe Talbott, then US deputy secretary of state, away from the media glare and partisan contexts. India’s position and concerns were brilliantly articulated, and the path was cleared for the US-India civil nuclear agreement, to come to fruition under the Manmohan Singh government, ending India’s nuclear isolation, besides delivering unprecedented strategic leverage to India for posterity. As a result, Pakistan was successfully “de-hyphenated” from the India-US confabulations without resorting to any chest thumping or braggadocio.
A most audacious and transformational “shift” was achieved from a most disadvantageous position, and the Vajpayee-Jaswant team had achieved the impossible. Diplomacy hadn’t become an electoral staple yet.
Today’s governmental showmanship and event management glitz have not spared the sobriety that was once Indian diplomacy. Seduced by the “muscular” narrative of milking every significant or insignificant event towards electoral gratification, India’s diplomacy has become a vital part of the winning admixture to enthral party cadres. While it was always the norm to see other ministers fall over each other to project the leadership of the day and amplify its preferred style with vitriolic soundbites, the external affairs ministry kept out of the jamboree. But not any longer. Now, sharp videos of India’s external affairs minister “blasting” and “tutoring” foreign correspondents are gleefully forwarded on the social media. Depending on the issue, anyone can be roasted and be given a dose of the new “assertive”, “decisive” and “take no nonsense” India! It does work wonders for the “nationalistic” mood and is bandied as yet another winning transformation from the sepia-tinted era of Nehruvian sensibilities and aesthetics. That sober style of diplomacy is buried under the graves of “pseudo-intellectuals” from the “Khan Market Gang”.
However, prickly issues like China’s aggression are tackled with silence, or at best with mealy-mouthed and defensive Platitudes. “Muscularity” boomeranged in Nepal, as it had in Sri Lanka earlier. Myanmar and Bangladesh remain edgy, and relations with Pakistan have been further downgraded since 2019!
The latest tussle with Canada will test our diplomatic instincts. Will we continue with the recently-acquired bombast or will we revert to the old-fashioned (but efficacious) traditional diplomacy? Will we shelve our fixation with a permanent eye-on-elections or persist? However brave or daring our approach may look, is it in the interest of the country or only of vote banks? The government need not look too far back: the Vajpayee era offers the best examples. Conflating the majoritarian agenda of domestic politics can be fatal with diplomacy, and Vajpayee understood that. Today’s MEA doesn’t lack competence, but is perhaps compelled to demonstrate its own “muscularity” in the “New India”. But it must delink its functioning from partisan passions, or else risk compromising India’s well-earned tag of being a “moral nation”.