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A foreign policy challenge

A foreign policy challenge

Author: G Parthasarathy
Publication: The Tribune
Date: January 11, 2007
URL: http://www.tribuneindia.com/2007/20070111/edit.htm#4

Introduction: Communal politics casting a shadow

The year 2006 ended with India facing a strange dilemma in conducting its foreign policy, when Iraq's Shia leaders, with American acquiescence, executed former President Saddam Hussein. This untimely and unwise move, with Iraq under foreign occupation is bound to increase sectarian tensions, with the country hovering on the brink of a civil war.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee's reaction to the hanging was measured and appropriate, pointing out the adverse consequences of this action for national reconciliation. But, even as the Shias and Kurds who constitute 80 per cent of Iraq's population were celebrating the event, duly backed by neighbouring Iran and with neighbouring Sunni majority Arab States like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait feeling quietly relieved, Indian political parties sought to make domestic political capital, portraying the entire episode as against Muslim sentiments.

A major challenge in 2007, particularly on dealing with issues in our western neighbourhood, is that foreign policy is being made hostage to communal politics. We are being told by influential political circles that while it is alright for former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu to visit Israel and to invite Israeli companies to West Bengal, New Delhi should compromise its security interests and end military acquisitions from Israel, even as China strengthens its military sinews with Israeli collaboration.

More astonishing is the criticism being voiced against the presence of American-led NATO troops battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, as though American withdrawal and the return of the Taliban will promote India's national security. Have we forgotten that the Taliban, with ISI backing, provided bases to groups like the "Harkat ul Mujahideen" to wage "Jihad" in Jammu and Kashmir, assisted the hijackers of IC 814 in Kandahar, attacked our consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad, killed our road construction engineers in Afghanistan and demands that all Indians leave their country?

The year 2007 is also set to see erosion in American global influence, as events in Iraq and Afghanistan have established the limitations of American military power. The AK 47 rifle, the suicide bomber and the improvised explosive device can inflict horrendous casualties on even the most powerful armies. The US will now be more prudent in exposing its forces to foreign adventures.

An energy-rich Russia led by the dynamic Vladimir Putin is emerging as a significant player in the world stage. The Russians have demonstrated that they have the will and the capability to roll back the adverse impact of American-inspired political changes in the former Soviet Republics, like Ukraine , Georgia, or Kyrgyzstan.

The main leverage that Russia wields is not military power, but energy resources. Ukrainians and Georgians have learnt that defiance of Moscow can lead to cold winters.

New Delhi would do well to bear this in mind as it prepares to welcome President Putin on Republic Day. It has to fashion new dimensions to its energy and military relationship with Moscow. Russia recognises that unlike its relationship with China, it has no long-term differences in interests with India. It has remained a reliable partner on areas ranging from space to nuclear fuel.

Nearer home, the challenges India faces in 2007 remain formidable. New Delhi has thus far dexterously dealt with the transition from monarchy and feudalism to democratic governance in Nepal. Bringing the Maoists into the democratic mainstream will remain a challenge. But what is of immediate concern is the political future of Bangladesh, where the forthcoming elections have been marred by violence and allegations of fraud in voters' lists.

The situation in Bangladesh is so fragile that even the nominally secular Awami League entered into an electoral alliance with the fundamentalist "Khilafat Majlis", a party whose members include "Jihadis" from the terrorist "Harkat ul Jihad ul Islami". But with the flip flops of the Awami League on its participation in the elections, Bangladesh appears headed for political violence and instability.

India's expectations of a secular, stable government in Bangladesh may not be fulfilled. It may be unrealistic to expect meaningful cooperation with Bangladesh on issues of concern in such a situation.

Unlike in Bangladesh , our problems in Sri Lanka arise not because any one of its major parties harbours anti-Indian sentiments. Our influence there has been limited because the "compulsions of coalition politics" in Tamil Nadu have inhibited New Delhi from effectively backing Sri Lanka's government to deal with the challenges it faces from the implacably separatist LTTE.

New Delhi is, however, going to require Sri Lankan understanding to deal with Pakistan's refusal to fulfill its commitments under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement. Pakistani obduracy on this score can be effectively countered by ensuring in the forthcoming New Delhi Summit of the BIMSTEC organisation that the Bay of Bengal littoral and hinterland States - Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan - formulate a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, embracing exchanges of goods, services and investment and infrastructure development.

To our west, we are set to see continuing terrorism sponsored by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. The limiting factor in this may be concerns that Pakistan has about its northern borders with Afghanistan, where its support for a resurgent Taliban is inviting the wrath of both Kabul and Washington.

The Pakistani calculation appears to be that given its reverses in Iraq, the US will be prepared to accommodate a "moderate" Taliban in the Kabul Government. New Delhi will have to cooperate closely with Afghanistan and review its position on the continuing validity of the Durand Line as the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the same time, common ground can be sought on proposals put forward by both India and Pakistan on the issue of J&K through a dialogue, which should, however, not be Kashmir centric.

2007 could well emerge as the year when nuclear sanctions against India by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group ends. Imaginative diplomacy is going to be required if this is to be achieved. But New Delhi should realise that this would not have been possible if President Bush was cast in the same mould as some of his predecessors, like Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The US is going to remain the pre-eminent world power in coming years. New Delhi would be well advised to build a durable partnership with the US in the remaining two years of the Bush Presidency - a partnership that recognises that while we may differ on some issues, there are many issues on which we can agree. But for this to happen, considerations of national interests will have to prevail over "compulsions of communal and coalition politics".


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