Today, it is hard to see India standing up for any values at all. The reasons, as Menon wrote so perceptively in his essay on Sri Lanka, have to do with “internal politics”.
Reading Shivshankar Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy is important far beyond the thoughts of the man himself. His tenure as foreign secretary and national security adviser saw India at the apogee of its power in recent times, able to deal confidently with not just her neighbours, but also with Europe, the US and China – increasingly as a country that could not be ignored. It’s a different matter that India has seen some of those circumstances turn to its disadvantage in recent times. Reading about the successful pursuit of the extraordinary exemption that India received from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 in the chapter devoted to the India-US Civil Nuclear Deal is enough to make one sigh in nostalgia.
Of the many issues that coincided with Menon’s tenure as foreign secretary and NSA, the major challenge for India – and the world – was the spectacular rise of China as an economic, political and military power. For the first time since the rise of European colonial power, a global power has arisen not from Europe or its colonies, and we are still figuring out how to deal with it in both tactical and strategic terms. Menon does not address it in his book but India’s response to the Beijing Olympic torch crisis in 2008 was one of those impressive moments when the foreign policy establishment seemed to get the response just right – far better than any other established power.
Although the Beijing Olympics had long been planned as China’s “coming out show” to showcase its achievements, people were taken off guard when the Olympic torch run was disrupted by Tibetans and others protesting China’s human rights abuses. While many of these issues were, and remain, valid, the harsh fact is that almost every Olympic host is doing – or has done – things which raise questions of ethics, morality and propriety. However, nobody disrupted the torch run for the US in Atlanta or Los Angeles for its continuing ill-treatment of African Americans and Native Americans, the toppling of regimes in Latin America, Africa or Asia, nor were the Moscow Olympics disrupted (though they were boycotted) for Soviet or Russian brutality in war. China therefore perceived the Olympic torch protests as an effort to humiliate it as it emerged on the global stage as a big power.
Only in India was a balance of sorts maintained between democratic principle and diplomatic propriety. While India allowed Tibetans and their supporters to march with their torch, the official Olympic torch run went off without a hitch. India demonstrated that it could show the courtesy and respect that China deserved without unduly restricting the freedom that Tibetans in exile enjoyed in India. It was a fraught but magnificent balancing act – one that showed India’s capability as a potential leader in the new world order, neither bound by narrow nationalist self-worship nor willing to sacrifice the principles that allowed for a liberal global order to emerge.
The striking thing is how well this theme runs throughout Menon’s book. In each one of the “choices” that he presents – handling the India-China border dispute, the India-US civil nuclear deal, India’s response to the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, Indian involvement in Sri Lanka’s civil war and India’s ‘no first use’ policy on nuclear weapons – there is an unstated idea of India as a different kind of power.
Maybe this is most clearly expressed at the end of the chapter on Sri Lanka, where he writes,
At the same time, it is worth remembering what Hannah Arendt said, which makes it clear that the primary responsibility lies in the internal politics of Sri Lanka rather than with international relations or the foreign policy choices of major powers. She observed that the idea of human rights, such as the right to democratic standing and political change, is a chimera and cruel taunt without a political community that can make it good through robust institutions and practices. The state of Sri Lanka in 2009 showed that the world is far from being such a polity, or a federation of such polities, and also showed how much is at stake in their absence.
This is an extremely important insight, but it is one that Menon in his book does not apply to India, or any of its parts.
But we do have an insight into this from something he was involved with earlier. As NSA, Menon encouraged a group of analysts to write a report on what Indian foreign policy should be. The report was penned by a range of scholars from across the political spectrum, from left to right, and was titled NonAlignment 2.0. [Disclosure: one of the authors of the report, Siddharth Varadarajan, is a founding editor of The Wire]. As with many reports commissioned by people from diverse political views, it did not necessarily please everyone, while irking quite a few. One aspect that seemed to generate a great deal of commentary – both favourable and critical – was the need to address India’s own democratic deficits so it could be a different sort of power.
While some commentators sneered at this aspiration, with the Wall Street Journal somewhat predictably and condescendingly wondering how long the US would tolerate this “obfuscation”, the test of the assumption is now before us.
The past decade has produced much that is positive. India’s revolutionary Right to Information Act paved the way for civil society actors in Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries to seek their own forms of access to information. Similarly the increasing presence of women in the police force, and the efforts at citizen-police engagement were replicated as civil society organisations across political borders learnt from, and helped each other understand the challenges and possibilities better. These initiatives, conducted quietly and out of the spotlight, and specifically not government initiatives, impacted relations at a personal level, and built communities of democracies that had much in common even if their individual countries were not at the most friendly terms with each other. It showcased the power of citizens and citizen groups, rather than states, and allowed the conversation to become one of human security and citizen-focussed development.
But as India recovers from one season of blinding protestors in the Kashmir Valley and prepares for another – with stray bullets killing children and bystanders; as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – which was enacted in 1958 and supposed to be removed a year later – remains firmly in place despite Irom Sharmila’s 16 years of Gandhian fasting in protest; as we convict G.N. Saibaba for thought crimes, it is worth asking where India would fall in Arendt’s estimation – especially as Brexit and the rise of Trump-ism frays the federation of polities that champion democratic institutions.
Today, it is hard to see India standing up for any values at all. The reasons, as Menon wrote so perceptively in his essay on Sri Lanka, have to do with “internal politics”. When a prime minister stands by silently when an Indian citizen is murdered on a rumour of beef-eating, it is hard to imagine his government can speak up when Indians in the US are killed by bigots for being brown or when Africans are attacked in India for being black. As it is, the introduction of The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 – yet to become a law – which specifically excludes Muslims (as well as Jews and atheists) from being treated as refugees from neighbouring states, means that India was already one step ahead of Trump’s “anti-Muslim ban”. The loss of India’s moral standing is evident and measurable.
If we had aspirations to be “a light upon the nations”, that light is slowly dying out, and with it, one of the greatest assets that India has possessed since her independence – a moral framework that we aspired to – and which allowed us to take on the Goliaths of the day on issues from decolonisation to civil rights. It seems as we rise, so do we fall.