Foreign policies brewed at home

Published September 27, 2022
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IT’S a given that foreign policies of nations represent their national circumstances. Circumstances change, policies change. They changed for Pakistan from Jinnah to Bhutto to Zia. Likewise, the Nehruvian state has been supplanted by a grotesquely anti-Nehruvian state.

For a quaint example, there was a time when India would offer beautifully produced Taj Mahal and Meenakshi temple coffee table books from its treasure of secular memorabilia to share with distinguished visitors. That was its home policy woven into foreign policy. It’s how India was and still is seen by many foreigners, as a miraculously working democracy with an enviable multicultural heritage. However, today’s India offers copies of the Geeta, the sacred Hindu text, which was in any case always loved as Gandhiji’s inspiration for willpower and courage. A copy of the Geeta would be placed in hotel drawers, sometimes separately, at others together with Gideon’s Bible.

Religious books were deemed India’s private assets and were not offered as presents to foreigners. There was also the stark question, why not the Quran or the Bible or the Guru Granth Sahib? India was not out to proselytise the world. It was flaunting its core strength, a grand mingling of cultures that made for a proud heritage. It’s not how it would like to be recognised by anybody today, not with the Taj Mahal, anyway, which the current rulers shun as a symbol of Muslim rule.

Citizens don’t always approve of their country’s changing foreign policies. They are not always in consonance with the state’s foreign or even domestic filters. The anti-Vietnam war movement in the US remains an instructive example of masses opposing an unpopular policy abroad. It’s difficult currently to conceive of such a movement in India or Pakistan that opposes sour relations between the two though small groups in both countries are trying to usher a change.

Not all countries are willing to heed foreign diktat.

Let’s not overstate the power of the common man always. The founding purposes of an unpopular policy need not evaporate with a solitary change enforced by an upsurge in a given case. The US certainly didn’t abandon its habit of invading countries or subverting their system of governments despite the humiliation in Vietnam or more recently in Afghanistan. The symptom is an amalgam of cultural traits and economics, jingoism being the moral compass. “We have the ships; we have the men; we have the money too.” The lines belong to 19th-century England in the context of — no surprises — the Russo-Turkish war. The economics sustaining the jingoist ditty is what Dwight Eisenhower described with worry and derision as the country’s military-industrial complex.

Remember the retainers coming to the fading and waning feudal lord in the classic movie Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam? They showed their master their knives and daggers, and complained: “Majesty, these are getting rusted. There’s no work to do.” Majesty gives them an assignment to murder the rebellious bride of his younger brother. “We have unparalleled destructive means, so what do we do with it?” America’s existential dilemma is couched in this terrifying question, bad news for the world.

Cynicism and greed thus work at cross purposes with people at home. The US didn’t like the Minsk agreements designed by Germany and France to remove lingering differences between Russia and Ukraine. The accords would pre-empt the need for the current conflict and allow Ukraine, Russia and the rest of Europe to live in relative peace, possibly even harmony. But that would have kept Washington out of the loop, an affront to its military and economic architecture embodied in Nato — the lethal military complex Eisenhower warned of. (A brief digression: Geoff Pyatt, the US ambassador in Kyiv, instrumental in laying the grounds for US intervention in the Russia-Ukraine stand-off by undermining the two major European powers, was also the political secretary at the US embassy in New Delhi that supervised India’s transition from the centrist Congress to its first right-wing establishment under A.B. Vajpayee.)

Not all countries are willing to heed foreign diktat. The Non-Aligned Movement was a platform for nations that had their own mind on foreign policies independent of Cold War blocs. It would have been difficult to imagine an Indian leader in those days either shunning the leader of a superpower, a more difficult part being to see them expressing unalloyed love for either.

Manmohan Singh broke ranks here by sharing the unique insight with George W. Bush Jr that Indians loved the visiting US president. That was one time that communist leader Prakash Karat perked up, telling Singh to speak for himself. The point here is that a Pew survey had only then revealed that Bush was the most unpopular leader in the world, including Europe. India was said to be the sole exception. But Pew was misled. Massive protests against the Bush visit showed that Singh was not speaking for India. Then Narendra Modi went to Houston and declared Donald Trump his second-term candidate in the White House. Wonder if that wish has waned at all.

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishanker is currently promoting India’s balancing of ties with the US and Russia as a unique and laudable feature of the time. Truth be told, the policy is exactly what Nehru conceived it as, which gave India a primary role in ushering peace in the Korean War, with Indira Gandhi sharing her angst at the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, both scrupulously embracing the non-aligned oath.

Canvassing for a favourite American president would not go with India’s non-aligned worldview. As India indicated its tilt to the West, Iran took the opposite direction. Iranian rage propelled Jimmy Carter to fall flat on the face with a single-term presidency. The ignominy only worsened when the Carter campaign strove to undermine Ronald Reagan, calling him a C-grade actor. Reagan’s supporters invented a memorable repartee: “A C-grade actor is better than a clown.” Iran won that US election.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2022

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