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Saturday, 30 January 1999

India as 'Uncle Tom' - Crawling when asked to Bend


(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


When Pranab Mukherjee formed a party of his own after being
cold-shouldered by Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s, it was clear
that he was an optimist. That quality was again in evidence on
the eve of his departure to New York for the UN General
Assembly meeting, when the external affairs minister said that
the passing of the Hank Brown amendment "would not affect"
Indo-US relations. Clearly, Mukherjee does not believe public
opinion: to be a factor in relations between democracies.

Had Josef Stalin been alive today, he would have felt at home
in the MEA and its US counterpart. Major negotiations and shifts
in position (the latter almost entirely on the Indian side) are
conducted in closed-door sessions. If it were not for the fact that
Stalinist secrecy is hard to maintain in the free-wheeling culture
of Washington, Indians may never have got to learn of the policy
positions taken by their own government. It is from the US side,
for instance, that we first learnt about the stopping of research
on Agni and the slowing down of the development of Prithvi.

It is worth remembering that several Senators who voted in
favour of the Brown amendment did so because, on the basis of
their talks with officials in New Delhi, they got the impression
that passing the amendment would not create major frictions in
Indo-US relations. Had the MEA been as feisty as the Indian
embassy in Washington in putting forward India’s case, at least
a few law-makers may have voted against the passage of the
amendment rather than for it. However, for the past four years,
the MEA policy has been to avoid "provoking" the United States.
Thus, even on matters where vital Indian interests are concerned,
the reaction from New Delhi is hesitant and mild. Despite the
rhetoric of being an Asian tiger, this country has lately been
behaving like a domestic cat.

Subservient Role
According to policymakers in Delhi, diplomacy has had to play
a subservient role to economic policy. If "sources close to the
Prime Minister" are to be believed, this kowtowing to US
sensibilities is on the advice of the finance ministry, which claims
that concessional assistance and other material goodies will flow
only if Washington is propitiated. Thanks to such advice 
embraced with enthusiasm by the Prime Minister’s Office-over
the past four years there has been a stream of unilateral
concessions to the developed world. If any extra benefit has
accrued to India from such a policy, this has not so far been made
public. On the contrary, whether on security issues such as Agni,
Prithvi and Kashmir or on trade matters, US·led pressure for
fresh concessions has never eased.

For an economy of its size, India must be the only country
where the government routinely puts foreign interests above
national ones. Whether it is in permitting MNCs to increase their
stakes in once-neglected subsidiaries cheaply, or in handing over
effective control to the foreign partner (as took place with Maruti
in 1993) or in the financial institutions tacitly helping an MNC
to retire an inconvenient chairman (the ITC case), those in charge
of economic policy have functioned as though their actions were
not dictated by the citizens of this country but the interests of the
multinationals. When economic policy is decided by those with
dollar pensions - and who are hoping for future dollar salaries -
is it any wonder that local interests get neglected?

Fault Line
The obsession with secrecy prevalent in South Block has prevented
it from getting feedback from outside its ranks on the efficacy of
its policies. Consequently, it has been unable to make the
gestures that would have generated public enthusiasm for its
policies. Had workers been offered discounted shares in PSUs,
or major cuts made in direct tax rates, or the food policy geared
to the interests of the small cultivator and the consumer rather
than the big landlord, today’s political landscape would have
been dominated by Narasimha Rao's party. The lack of a public
dimension in the framing of economic policy is only one of the
fault lines running through the present governmental structure.

Another is the inability to recognise that when the Clinton
administration says that it wants to pursue an "even-handed"
policy as between India and Pakistan, it should be taken at face
value. The direction of present American policy towards the
subcontinent is to wipe out the tactical and strategic advantages
that India has over Pakistan and ensure parity between the two.

This can only be done if Indian technological advances and
defence procurement are checked, while Pakistan's is not. Hence
the not-so-hidden pressure on the Russians to slow down or stop
critical supplies to India despite the rupee-rouble deal. This also
explains the open (and till now successful) efforts to destroy
Indian technological advances in the nuclear, missile and other
sectors. Another five years of this kind of policy and India will
be a sitting duck even for a conventional attack by Pakistan.

One of the many admirable features in the US system of
government is the power of the legislature to order enquiries on
matters of concern. A future Parliament will need to investigate
why critical technologies were allowed to be aborted at a time
when Pakistan was "upping the ante" through subversion. It will
need to investigate how proposals for the purchase of cheap
frigates from the UK or tanks from Russia were scuttled. It will
need to find out why so much official prominence has been given
to a group of failed Kashmiri politicians with open links to
Islamabad, the Hurriyat. Or why a Congress chief minister in a
north-eastern state is being allowed to openly promote subversion.

Or why a "godman" who would be a security risk in any part
of the world is allowed regular access to the Prime Minister, even
to the extent of taking his car up to the doorstep of the official
residence.

Borrowing a leaf from George Kennan's essay, India needs
to surround its major security threat, Pakistan, with a ring of
alliances forged on political and economic grounds. Rather than
just waste time on the Bhutto fan club in Washington, New Delhi
needs to focus on giving trade incentives to its neighbours.
Specifically, Kabul should be helped to ensure that Afghanistan
does not become a client state of Islamabad. Trade ties need to
be developed with Iran and the Central Asian republics. Despite
the Kozyrevs, the Russian government is slowly emerging out of
its subservience to the West, and contacts with Moscow - and
Beijing - need to be regarded as being more crucial than the
postures of the self-declared "sole superpower". If Mahathir
Mohammed is not adopting the Indian habit of merging fiery
rhetoric with capitulation, he should welcome India’s entry into
ASEAN, despite opposition from influential quarters.

Repeating 1962
Clearly, a favoured model for present day Indian policy-makers
is the "hero" of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. While this may
please some NRI businessmen and "godmen" and their
international patrons, it runs the risk of repeating 1962, this time
with Pakistan. Had the leadership of this country shown the
same resolve in deterring Islamabad from its subversion as it has
demonstrated against the likes of Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari and
Rangarajan Kurnaramangalam, India would not now have been
reduced to its present cringing status. The undertakers of Indian
science are actively lobbying for the replacement of the Abdul
Kalams with some of their own people. Why bother about
forming a new East India Company when Raisina Hill itself is
doing the job so thoroughly?



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