Thursday, December 28, 2006

Policy clear as mud

India officially voiced its displeasure at the upholding of Saddam Hussain's death sentence. Ostensibly, India doesnt approve of anything that will "obstruct reconciliation and delay the restoration of peace in Iraq".

India's stance in global affairs sometimes baffles me. Obviously, there isnt a single and coherent stream of political/moral/social thought guiding foreign policy, which shows itself in the unreasonable positions and sporadicity with which India shows interest in other nations' affairs (barring Pakistan from the definition of 'other nations'). India's justification of its disapproval of Saddam's sentence - peace in Iraq - is hard to believe. More easy to digest is the argument that India wants to keep the Sunnis (who make up 80% of India's 150 million Muslims) happy, and strengthen relations with the Sunni Gulf nations.

But then, if the opinions of Sunnis are important, how do you explain the cozying up in strategic affairs with Israel and the US? And if Israel is an ally, how do you explain India's soft-pedalling the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions (Pranab Mukherjee's explanation that he wants to keep the door to dialogue with Iran open because of India's "civilizational links with Iran" is laughable). And how about India turning a blind eye (barring lip service) to the Palestine question? Some might argue that India is only supporting what it thinks is right without taking sides, but that is not true, given India's lacklustre stand on the Tibet issue or her investments in Sudan.

Others may argue that India is only acting in the national interest regardless of how correct the action is. But this [link] article in last week's EPW suggests that it is the political and moral character of the leadership that determines foreign policy, not national interest (the article would have earned 4 stars had the author not polluted it with his apparent bias for the left and had not issued the clarion call to the "struggle" which is very common even in seemingly academic material emanating from the left; it is amazing how these guys dont get arrested for treason), and I obliquely agree. While the author of the article uses the term "political and moral character" depreciatingly to suggest partisanship and corruption, the fact is that there is a disturbing lack of a coherent shared system of mores and attitudes to guide foreign, and also domestic, policy.

Indeed, policy in India seems surprisingly detached from any recognizable schools of thought. I read political mouthpieces from both ends of the spectrum - Organiser from the right and EPW from the left - and find that more often than not, important policy decisions are detached from dominant thought in both camps. For instance, the US nuclear deals as well as recent economic policies have been roundly criticised by both. So does it mean that India is going down a centrist path, keeping radical opinions on both sides at bay? If so, who are these centrists and what do they stand for? Will India's foreign policy take a consistent form that many or most citizens can relate, even if they disagree, with? I doubt so.

Back to Saddam, India's reaction reminds me of something I had read on the Iranian concept of taroof taarof [link], which describes the practice of insincerity, of saying something without meaning it. Italy, Germany, and France reacted the same way as India did, but they categorically explained that widespread revulsion towards the death penalty in their societies was their motive for opposition, which is understandable in light of the EU's policy-level opposition to the death penalty in all cases. India's justification is lame and unbelievable.

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