Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Congress must spurn BJP’s support on China border issue….and continue with soft diplomacy

I don’t normally write on foreign affairs. My subject of interest is Indian politics. But when I read in the Indian Express that Rajnath Singh, President of the BJP, had offered “support” to the Government for taking a hardline on the Chinese incursion into Ladakh (disputed), it raised my hackles. I thought it was apt to pen down some thoughts.

The last thing we need at this point in time is aggression on the border. Not only with China, but also with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. What we need is a cool head and a lot of gumption. Gumption that guides us to find a satisfactory and amicable solution without disturbing the peace with the country, and without (more importantly) distracting us from our long term goal of economic growth, removal of poverty and the like.

The BJP’s stand on such issues of foreign policy changes depending on whether it is in power or outside! But then let’s be fair to the party. This fickle behavior of it’s is not limited just to foreign affairs. It is true for all subjects! When the BJP is out of power, it advocates a hardline approach to matters of national security. And after it comes to power, it changes its stand. Before it came to power in 1999, the party was a strong advocate of a hardline approach towards Pakistan. Yet, when the NDA was ruling, it made peace overtures to the neighbor! When it is out of power, it takes a hardline stance on terrorism. Yet, when it was in power, it sent its Foreign Minister to Afghanistan to deposit arrested terrorists back with their masters! Likewise, the current advice of aggression with China is being made because it is out of power. If it was in power, it would have done no different from what the present Government is doing.

There are a few TV channels as well – one of them I call Scam TV since its entire positioning is based on real and imagined (mostly imagined) scams – that advocate a hardline stance. Such channels however do it for far more near-term material benefits – an enhancement in their TRPs. One such channel in particular specializes in putting together formal army generals from both sides (typically in a  Pakistan-India debate) and making them hurl verbal and other abuses to each other. We saw this happen during the recent flare up with Pakistan on the “decapitation” issue. We had panelists threatening each other with a nuclear war, and abusing each other’s leadership like they were street goons. The points of views of such news channels are also best ignored.

When it comes to handling foreign affairs, it is best to keep a cool head. It may appear a little “pansy” or “cowardly” not to react immediately with aggression. But in the long run, this works better than anything rash. This is equally true in our politics. Aggression in oratory (Narendra Modi is an example) makes an immediate impression and people say “Wow. What a great man”, though actually they have only been taken in by his speech. His speech is great; but he may not be great himself! In contrast, a man like Manmohan Singh is often derided because (and simply because) he is not a good orator. If oratory is what we vote for, then maybe we should search for a different kind of people!

The US political parties offer a good comparison. The Republicans are known to be aggressively “nationalistic”. This is not to say that the Democrats aren’t. However, the Democrats would be expected to carry a cooler head in the face of provocation. George Bush avenged 9/11 by attacking the wrong country, and getting thousands of American soldiers killed, but for him, that immediate action was more important. The flash of anger that guided his decision in those moments of time ended up harming US interests. But in the Republican thinking, immediate action is more important than thoughtful action. It’s a tad similar with the BJP.

The Government should not fall into the trap of making jingoistic statements, the BJP’s “friendly” offer of support notwithstanding. What Salman Khursheed is doing is the right thing. It is being described as a “difference of perceptions” about where the border actually lies. Diplomatic efforts are underway. The “procedure” is being followed. The flag meetings are part of that procedure. There is no need for the PM or the Foreign Minister to jump in at this stage (as advised by Prakash Javdekar of the BJP). It’s perfect for our Army to make recommendations for “strong action” – because this sends a good message to the other side. But its important that this confidence of the Armed forces be balanced with a cool diplomatic and political response.

The issue will blow over because it is also in China’s interests not to escalate matter. China has too many problems of its own. It’s scuffle with the US is not something it can ignore. It’s skirmishes with Japan likewise. And then there is North Korea where the Chinese will have a very direct role to play. China doesn’t want any distractions. The settlement of the issue is as much in China’s interest as in India’s. But because of the kind of political body it is (single partly; almost dictatorial), its response will be different from our. They will go through their own procedures; but in the end, things will return back to normal.

The real truth is that the advice, support – call it whatever – of the BJP on this subject is avoidable. The party’s credentials are such that such an offer needs to be seen with due caution….

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