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Friday, September 16, 2011

India Journal

Bangladesh and Our Foreign Policy Elitism


When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced he would visit Bangladesh, there were great expectations. It appeared as though ties between the two nations were finally on the right track, backed by diplomatic and political goodwill. Many believed that during his visit, the Prime Minister would make a “game changing” policy shift in the matter of the international border, trade and especially shared river waters.

Such issues have crimped relations between the neighbors. Mr. Singh’s visit was to herald a new dawn. His timing was impeccable. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is much more India-friendly than the previous regime. Her father, Mujibur Rahman, the leader who challenged and triumphed over Pakistan, could not have done so without massive Indian support. It seemed as though as the ducks were lined up and Indo-Bangladesh ties were headed north.

However, one of the Congress party’s major allies, the Trinamul Congress led by Mamata Bannerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, pulled out from Mr. Singh’s delegation at the last minute. Her pique apparently was over the amount of water the government proposed to divert from the Teesta River, which also runs through her state, to Bangladesh.

The mercurial Ms. Bannerjee was concerned that her Communist political rivals could make the deal into a political controversy and cause her to lose the support of the farmers in the northern parts of the state.

Ms. Bannerjee’s decision caused heartburn in the Ministry of External Affairs. In foreign policy circles, many termed the chief minister’s behavior unwarranted, obstructionist and downright petty.

The tendency of the foreign affairs establishment to disparage local political sensibilities stems from a belief that foreign policy is a highbrow pursuit best handled by the Oxbridge lot. The corollary is that they would allow no moffusil (local) interests to get in the way of Delhi’s international relations agenda.

Similar thinking pushed Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi into a misadventure in Sri Lanka. Between 1987 and 1990, Delhi sent an Orwellian-named “Indian Peace Keeping Force” to fight the Tamil Tigers, who had fought a long and violent war in pursuit of Eelam, an independent state in northern Sri Lanka.

Faced with an unexpectedly fierce guerrilla challenge from the militants, the IPKF eventually withdrew. At that time too, local politicians in Tamil Nadu had advised against supporting the Sri Lanka government.

The elitist mindset that led to India’s misadventure in Sri Lanka and the subsequent assassination of Rajiv Gandhi survives two decades later. It is evident from the reaction to Ms. Bannerjee’s intervention in the river waters issue.

Neither Ms. Bannerjee’s recalcitrance nor the protest of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu against the IPKF had merit. Dravidian parties support for the Tigers never did get much political traction; Ms. Bannerjee, as always, has very narrow political concerns.

The issue, however, is not about the limited perspective of state politicians. It is about the inability or unwillingness of the Indian foreign policy establishment to take into account domestic sensitivities before they decide what they are going to do.

In 1955, the story goes, Jawaharlal Nehru conceded to China the United Nations Security Council seat offered to India. With his fabled vision and ideals, Nehru realized quickly that India, with high levels of poverty and illiteracy as pressing domestic concerns, was in no shape to take on global responsibility.

Even after 56 years, the Internet chatteratti rant and rave about Nehru’s decision, arguing that his naïveté cost India a place in the UNSC.

Nehru was right. The British government of India was a powerful force, whose writ ran from Afghanistan to Burma. The newly independent government that inherited the colonial mantle faced insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast as well as the perils of poverty, disease and illiteracy. In addition, while the wealthy colonial government of India played a huge role in the British Empire, the newly independent entity was poor and powerless in the international arena.

Many in India and those who live abroad wrongly believe Nehru lost India a Security Council seat because of his arrogant idealism. The more important issue is that any concern for India’s standing in the world, and its relationships with other countries, has to take into consideration domestic realities.

This is especially true today. With the Indian economy on a roll and the ever-increasing ambit of Indian trade and commerce, the demands on diplomacy have become ever more complex. Diplomats are called upon to explain not just the evident disparities in Indian society and widely reported allegations of corruption but to use their skills to run interference for the growing number of Indian companies doing business around the world.

As they do so, Ms. Bannerjee’s much reviled opposition to the river water deal with Bangladesh is worth keeping in mind. It is an affirmation of what Henry Kissinger said in his seminal book, “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy”: domestic politics cannot be “taken as given.” The Bannerjee dissent is a sure sign that Indian foreign policy has to descend from its elitist heights and deal with local politics.

This appeared on India Real Time, The Wall Street Journal on September 15, 2011