"Our government must understand that the ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work in international relations. Our government must understand that the ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work in international relations."
Written by Salman Khurshid | October 11, 2014
Woodstock 2014 is over. The rock star is home. Madison Square Garden is silent again. The TV channels have found something else to talk ( really, shout) about. God is in his heaven; Prime Minister Narendra Modi is back on Indian soil and all is well in the world (well, almost). Happy days, we are promised, will be here soon. So now may be a good time to write something that might be noticed.
I am reminded of a nursery rhyme from childhood: “Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?” “I have been to London to visit the Queen.” “Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you do there?” “I frightened a little mouse under the chair.” Would it be entirely unfair to suggest that Modi’s much-celebrated visit to the United States did not really end with a bang but with a whimper? Since we are acutely divided on the subject, with large “for” a priori positions taken in the aftermath of the great 2014 election result, it is important that the proposition about the US visit being quite ordinary in substance, even though high on presentation, be tersely supported by analytical arguments. Of course, it is not easy to publicly dissect the prime minister’s state visit to another country because he is, after all, the face of India when he travels abroad and we cannot allow our domestic ideological differences to undermine the India story beyond our borders.
To tick the box for successful negotiations, it is important to recall the wishlist we went to the US with. At the United Nations, sadly, Pakistan tried to undermine our prime minister’s debut, but fortunately, he did not bite the bait and kept to the script that has served us well at the international level for many decades. But one cannot help wondering why the new Indian dispensation took a myopically optimistic view of our troublesome neighbour. Conventional wisdom advocates the inevitability of talking to Pakistan and therefore the prime minister cannot be faulted for taking that wisdom further. The bonhomie at the new government’s swearing-in ceremony, where all SAARC leaders were invited, was sought to be billed as a diplomatic coup. This might have been fine for PR but tricky if the prime minister believed it to be the new reality nurtured by his powerful presence.
Subsequent developments have very sadly proved right the doubts that were somewhat muted when the impressive announcement of the foreign secretary-level talks were announced. Assuming good behaviour from the Pakistani side is not only a precarious proposition but also involves a mistaken sense of self-esteem. In Pakistan, we deal with a slippery interlocutor because of a complicated power structure in that country. There are no quick fixes for this chronic condition and certainly no inexpensive takeaways. Our government must understand that the “one size fits all” approach does not work in international relations. Our position in the world and our ambition to be at the high table limits our options for dealing with a recalcitrant Pakistan. The government must be careful about believing the words it spoke to decry the UPA when it was in power. Words do not break any bones.
We may take some comfort in the fact that the US has shown signs of expanding its list of proscribed terrorist groups from Pakistan. But we have heard such pronouncements in the past with precious little impact on the ground. Yet, if the US has said it will do something, let us keep our fingers crossed. Much was made of the numerous subjects on which India and the US have agreed to talk: WTO, IPR, environment, civil nuclear cooperation. Amartya Sen will soon be writing his new book, “The Talkative Indian”. We will talk about the IS, Iraq and Afghanistan, with the hope that the US will do its bit while we support it with talk. But I am not sure if there is any item on the talk agenda that deals with H1B1 visas. Make in India presupposes that Americans are good at making things whereas what we know is that they are interested in the services sector. Lifesaving drugs may cost more but we will at least have food security.
The high point of the prime minister’s visit was Madison Square, not the UN or the White House, because unlike those two places, here it was Modi and only Modi. Any politician would envy the adulation and applause that Modi got, not to be undermined by the fact that money was spent and made. “Come make in India” morphed into “go make in America”. But what of the US’s immigration bill? The sentiment behind the bill will indeed feed on the Madison Square spectacle. It may not have been such a good idea to display what comes naturally to successful persons of Indian origin. They have chosen a new life away from the land of their ancestors. We are proud of their achievements but should do nothing that tends to alienate them from their chosen compatriots. Diaspora is a blessing in disguise but it may sometimes need to remain disguised to be a blessing for itself. These are little lessons one needs to learn to navigate the world. The prime minister would do well to get himself a diplomatic GPS to stay the course. Soundbytes work well in domestic politics but can spell trouble abroad.
The writer is a Congress leader and former Union minister for external affairs, October 2012-May 2014
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