Good news for a change! The Indian foreign office finally saw reason and abstained from voting in the United Nations Human Rights Commission on March 27 on the US-sponsored resolution on alleged human rights violation in Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, the same day in faraway New York, India abstained in another vote of far-reaching consequences, that of the UN General Assembly declaring illegal Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In the event, both resolutions were passed, but that is not the main issue. What is of relevance, and which India’s neighbours will note for sure, is the fact that India exerted its sovereign right to safeguard its national interests, independent of pressures from internal politics and Western powers, the US in particular. Let’s consider each case on merit.
India voted against Sri Lanka, and more importantly against its own strategic interests, in the 2012 and 2013 UNHRC votes, castigating the island nation for excesses in its war against the LTTE, especially in the closing days. A UK television channel was in the forefront of the media campaign and had released strategically timed footage which it said had been taken during the war. With elections looming in 2014 and pressure from the Tamil Nadu government, its Assembly and from its own MPs led by P Chidambaram, the central government was in a bind. The state government’s opposition had forced the Centre to withdraw Sri Lankan trainee officers and enlisted men from training institutions of our armed forces located in Tamil Nadu. This was indeed a dangerous trend, as local politics trumped long-term national interests and showed the Indian government in very poor light. It is no state secret that, in the event, Pakistan scored many points with the Sri Lankans; the Sri Lankan officers who were withdrawn from our Defence Services Staff College in Wellington were welcomed with open arms in the Pakistani Staff College in Quetta within days of their repatriation. The pertinent, though important, issue is not the Pakistani gain but the loss of goodwill of a neighbouring country which is strategically important to India. Courses of such nature constitute an important element of military diplomacy, the importance of which has just not dawned on our political class. The compulsions of politics should not override national interests, which alas, happened in the case of Sri Lanka. It’s good that with the latest abstention in Geneva, India would have retrieved some goodwill. But, as a matter of fact, India’s Staff College and other training institutions are situated in Tamil Nadu. Considering just the Indian Air Force, the Flying Instructors’ School and the majority of all airmen training schools are at Tambaram in Chennai, while Coimbatore boasts a few others. Would we continue our policy of excluding Sri Lankan trainees from them? One can only hope that better sense prevails.
The case of Crimea is indeed unique and would have had the mandarins of North Block working overtime. A parallel is that of the entry of the erstwhile Soviet Union into Afghanistan in 1979, when India had to do a fine balancing act which earned the wrath of the Western nations. But, a stand we did take, for in the world of realpolitik there are no permanent friends, only interests. In the Crimea vote, our national interest dictated that we side with Russia. India has a long-standing relationship with it, Russia (erstwhile USSR) stood by us in the 1971 war with Pakistan when the American Seventh Fleet sailed into the Bay of Bengal under Nixon’s famous tilt towards our adversary. It is the country from which we, as per the latest SIPRI report, import 70% of our armament. That Brazil and China went along with our abstention is not of consequence; what is praiseworthy is that for once India showed the spunk to safeguard its national interests. Another noteworthy point is the abstentions of 58 nations in the vote, indicating that there is still a bloc that is non-aligned in the presently uni-polar world. Call it non-aligned or by any other name, it’s a pointer to the clout or importance of Russia, notwithstanding Obama calling it a “regional” power in Brussels, just before the vote.
The ministry of external affairs is in a unique position at this point in time. The central government is free from electoral compulsions of Tamil Nadu politics due to the failure of a tie-up of the UPA with any political party. It has provided the necessary assistance to Malaysia in the search for MH370 and fulfilled its obligation of being a big neighbour, with a fairly well-endowed military capability, to the South East Asian countries (though there has been some criticism of the quantum). The Devyani episode is, hopefully, behind us and the new government would have the advantage of dealing with an incumbent Democratic presidency of the US that would want to show good relations with the largest democracy in the world as it goes into the next polls. If the massive Russian presence at the recently concluded DefExpo was anything to go by, Russia would want to stay as the number one defence partner to sustain its defence industrial complex that desperately needs foreign exchange. Pakistan would have to be managed with firmness, even as we extend our hand of friendship. That leaves China, which needs to be faced with the confidence of a nation whose annual growth is only going to rise from the dumps it reached last year to at least 6.2 % (as per World Bank).
There is one more bear lurking in the shadows of our foreign policy apparatus, and that is the refusal of the establishment to accept the expertise of our armed forces community in framing national foreign policy. In no country of any worthwhile standing has such exclusion, bordering on segregation, been enforced. Just as the recent voting pattern in the UN has shown new determination in safeguarding national interests, one hopes that the new government would overhaul the sanctum sanctorum of foreign policy decision-making. To paraphrase a famous saying, originally addressed at the military, “foreign policy is too important a subject to be left only to the diplomats”.
The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.