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Foreign Policy In Abstention

India's stand on the recent United Nations (UN) resolution on Sri Lanka calling for an international probe into alleged atrocities against its Tamil minorities is just another example of the kind of foreign policy that New Delhi has always been known for - strategic in its own way but hesitant, safe-playing, and not strong enough to establish India as a regional political force. One of the things, among many, that India's new government would need to pay urgent attention to is picking up the threads of the country's foreign policy and knitting them back into a credible new one. There's reason to doubt, however, if that's going to be easy or possible.

There was a time when pros and cons mattered little and foreign policy was practically served on a platter to the government that took charge of independent India in August 1947. Colonialism was on the retreat around the region. Goodwill was in the air and India, being the largest among the emerging democracies, basked in it the most. For these countries, non-alignment became an easy foreign policy choice as a matter of natural protest against imperialist powers, and when, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union lent them its sympathy, India fell for it as a source of great moral support.

But the world has vastly changed since then. It's no longer a simple black-and-white one, just good or evil, hot or cold, where one is either a friend or an enemy. The needs and compulsions of nations, both big and small, have become more complex and interdependent. Grand isolation is no longer a foreign policy choice. Holier-than-thou is no longer an acceptable attitude. Inflexibility and blind patriotism have no place in today's multi-polar, multi-interest world. New-age foreign policy must be based as much on self-interest as on pragmatism. It has to be open and tolerant at the same time and have the ability to build bridges, reach out, and leave the past behind.

There are two examples of foreign policy pragmatism in recent history, standing out as shining lessons of tolerance and goodwill. One is South Africa, which gained independence in 1994 under Nelson Mandela's leadership after a long, bloody struggle against Afrikaaner colonial rulers and their abhorrent policy of apartheid. The kind of hatred, torture, and racial discrimination that black South Africans had to undergo at the hands of their white rulers would have led to bloody nationalist counter-attacks against whites after independence. But there was none, because Mandela felt that fanning blind nationalism would only wrack the country further and old enmities must be forgotten in the interest of rebuilding its economy as quickly as possible.

The other example is Vietnam. Given its long history of anti-colonial struggle, first against the French and then against the Americans, especially against the Americans who had devastated the land with napalm bombs and poisonous defoliants, and subjected the Vietnamese to atrocities and massacres beyond imagination, one would have expected Vietnam's new rulers to have nothing to do with the Americans after they were forced to surrender in 1974. But old enmities were soon forgotten and blind nationalism gave way to new relationships that welcomed even American investments and businesses in national self-interest.

Unfortunately, India hasn't been able to shake off its baggage from the past, though it has shown occasional streaks of realism in its dealings with certain countries and geographical regions. But its steps have, at best, been hesitant, not determined enough to evoke confidence. Our relationships with our neighbours, in particular, still remain a mess and the prospects of building an economically prosperous and politically peaceful South Asia, led by India not as a big brother but as a guiding spirit, remain a dream. Even our feeble attempts to mend fences from time to time have been thwarted by the ghosts of the past rising ominously from the graves of history that should have been forgotten by now.

But domestic politics has reached a stage where chances are even more remote that these ghosts can be exorcised anytime soon. Prejudices have become more rigid, loyalties have become narrower, nationalism is becoming blinder, and questions of national good and bad are sounding increasingly empty and meaningless. All this raises the doubt that foreign policy could be one of the biggest victims of India's upcoming electoral kurukshetra.

Whoever happens to run India's next government would do well to remember, that in this complex and fast-changing world, inflexibility isn't always a virtue and sagacity isn't necessarily a bad habit. There are huge opportunities awaiting us, if only we're wise enough to grab them, especially in building corridors of prosperity, through Bangladesh, all the way to Myanmar and beyond. China would only be too happy to jump into any space they find unoccupied, and has indeed covered a lot of ground already.


(This article written by Barun Roy, an Indian journalist, was originally published in Business Standard of India )

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