Saturday, March 16, 2013

When jingoism gets the better of pragmatism….

A lot of things have happened of late which show that jingoism has got the better of pragmatism. In all cases, the issue has gotten worsened as a result of the jingoism. In all cases, the country’s long term interests have been harmed in the interest of salvaging short term pride. Consider a few examples from the recent past.

Take the recent issue of the Pakistanis beheading an Indian soldier, an unacceptably gruesome act and definitely not pardonable. Now there were two ways for India to handle the issue. One was a quiet way with the Indian side engaging the Pakistanis diplomatically, using established protocol, using a little push and a little pull, to ensure that such incidents were never repeated. Unfortunately, such a method would be branded “soft” by the hardliners. The government would be mocked for being “weak” and “spineless”. As a result, the government was forced to take a hard stand. And raise the pitch; even issue public threats. In the process hurting a peace process which was certainly more beneficial for India than an adversarial relationship with Pakistan. But jingoism trumped pragmatism. Many Indians felt good that we had “shown Pakistan its place”, but now, India will remain distracted from its core goals – alleviating poverty, ensuring rapid growth etc etc.

Take the recent Sri Lanka issue. The US is moving a resolution in the UN condemning Sri Lanka for the murder of LTTE Chief Prabhakaran’s young son. Without doubt, this was a gruesome deed, and there is no way that India can be seen as siding with Sri Lanka on the issue. At least not in the full glare of the TV cameras of the aggressive news channels. And yet, from a long term perspective, it would be in India’s interest to vote against the US resolution, and cosy up to Sri Lanka. Or at least insist on getting the resolution diluted. India could always exert pressure on Sri Lanka later. Unfortunately, jingoism (of Tamilian parties – supported by other opportunistic allies in Delhi) will eventually force India to vote against Sri Lanka. In the process, India will give China a red carpet to enter the island nation and make it its ally. The long term worry of India’s – of being encircled by China as part of its “string of pearls” strategy – will worsen, but then long term principles are often sacrificed on the alter of short term jingoism.

Take the Italian marines issue. Again, by all yardsticks, the Italians have stabbed us in the back. They gave us a sovereign assurance, and they reneged on it. The opposition parties lampooned the government as if it was some crazy decision it had taken not to oppose the Italian government’s plea to allow the marines to go home to vote. The BJP would have done the same thing considering India has a really good relationship with the country. But now that the marines have scooted, and the issue has become so hot, India is being forced to up the ante. The Italian ambassador has been detained; our own ambassador to Italy has been asked to stay back; in short, a lot of unnecessary tension has been created. India is in a trap, for it is neither possible for it to “forget” the matter, nor to escalate it beyond a point. A better solution would have been to handle it diplomatically, as many former diplomats have been urging, outside the glare of the public eye. In a surcharged political environment, that’s impossible.

Jingoism never helps the country. It only helps the interests of political parties. The BJP is the master of jingoism. It wears nationalism on its sleeve; almost as if history compels it to do so (remember it hasn’t been able to remove the stain left by Nathuram Godse who was a member of the RSS). For the BJP, jingoism helps it in two ways. First, it helps it to sharpen its own positioning amongst its core Hindu following, and two, it helps to paint the Congress as a soft party. That is why the BJP has made jingoism a central pillar of its political strategy. The party promotes the feeling that India is a loser. That India’s soldiers are wimps and have never conducted wrongful actions of their own. They like to interpet history in a way that suits them. On Kashmir, they are happy to forget many facts of history because those are unsavoury. On foreign relations, they are happy to forget that there is a lot of give and take involved; and India is not always giving. When it came to the Indo-US nuclear deal for example, it took a lot of concessions from the developed world. The US did us a lot of good then. What is wrong if India yielded a bit on some other issue – like Iran – in the spirit of give and take to the US? Isn’t giving and taking a part of life? Is it possible in real life for one person to always be taking, and never giving? Such a person would be a bully right? Is it the BJP’s view that India should be a bully?

But its not just the BJP that indulges in jingoism. Some time back, Mamata Banerjee, when she was part of the UPA, threw her weight to stall the Teesta river water treaty between Bangladesh and India. She found it convenient to do so for political reasons; for she could claim that she had saved the Teesta waters for her people. But what about the co-operation with a friendly neighbor which got compromised? In the past, thanks to the good relations it has with India, Bangladesh has helped control the scourge of terrorists entering India from its side. Who loses if that co-operation stops, if not the people of West Bengal. But such niceties are difficult to prove – at least in the short timeframe that politics is concerned with.

When the BJP says that India’s global stature has been eroded by the Congress, it is just being opportunistic. When it was ruling in the center, its government actively engaged Pakistan in talks. Here is what the Outlook magazine reported in April 2004: Outlining the broad contours of its foreign policy, the NDA today promised to continue the dialogue process with Pakistan for a lasting solution to all outstanding issues including Jammu and Kashmir. It’s not like that was a different time and there were no provocations. The attack on Parliament had taken place just a few years back. But today, as reported in the ET of Jan 11, 2013, the BJP says: In the wake of the brutal killing of two Indian soldiers on the Line of Control (LoC), BJP leader Yashwant Sinha today advocated suspension of dialogue with Pakistan even as he admitted that the previous NDA government had also committed the mistake by engaging the neighbour in talks. It wasn’t a mistake the BJP made then. It is a mistake it is making now.

The media also has had a big hand to play in the rising jingoism. At least one leading news channel has made it its strategy to be jingoistic. It routinely pits retired Indian generals against Pakistani ones, and raises the pitch of the debate sky high, often leading to an open war of words including threatening each other with nuclear war. Is this responsible news reporting? Is this journalism at all? Is this in the India’s interest? We’ve seen the impact of having TV cameras installed inside Parliament. MPs behave as if they are on stage; grandstanding and indulging in brinkmanship on every issue. But in the standing committees which are held outside the glare of cameras, actual work gets done. Bills get debated and value additions happen. Its time at least some restraints are imposed by the channels on themselves.

The real truth is that in the last few years, and increasingly now thanks to the elections which are around the corner, India is suffering from an excess of jingoism. Its time we pulled back from the brink. Certain things should be kept out of the public domain and left to experts; like foreign relations. Political parties must refrain from making at least some of these issues political. Else jingoism will destroy India. If not in the short run, definitely in the long run….

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