March 20, 2012

The uncertainty principle

India needs to show vim and vigour in foreign affairs, says N.V.Subramanian.

19 March 2012: Whilst India is a status quo, peacefully rising power, it must nevertheless act in international crisis situations. Making excuses not to do so, or citing imperatives of national security when they do not apply, suffice or convince, do not assist the country, especially as an emerging power.

After much dilly-dallying, the government has decided to support the UNHCR resolution on Sri Lanka's war crimes against Tamils. It must similarly act with decision on Iran after the proven involvement of Iranians in the attack on an Israeli diplomat in Delhi. It mustn't be prodded to do so as after the Maldives' coup.

A section of the strategic community looks with suspicion at anything Western, but that is not how India can bias its foreign policy. For example, commentators have exhorted India to ignore allegations against the Sri Lankan army in its war against the LTTE. The conduct of strategic affairs cannot be so one-sided because grayness dominates the lives of men and of the actions of states.

The Sri Lankan Tamil issue is complicated, not least because of its impact on Tamil Nadu politics, whose consequences magnify with a weak coalition government at the Centre. Till India did not directly intervene in Sri Lankan affairs, neither training the terrorists nor siding with the government forces, an uneasy peace existed between the Tamils and Sinhalese with hopes of things getting better.
Then the situation got messy, with all sides making blunders, with the result that Tamils have no voice in Sri Lanka today. After the disastrous IPKF intervention and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, India has permitted free play of Sinhala chauvinism, whose fallouts, captured in gut-wrenching video recently, have shocked the world. India cannot act as if nothing has happened.

The usual scare scenarios are being advanced for India to tolerate the murderous Sri Lankan regime. In the main, it is suggested that the Sinhala regime will seek support of the Chinese and other powers inimical to India in the region. So what? India must be prepared to face the new challenges. India cannot hope that the world will remain frozen in time. The only constant is change. India must adapt constantly. India delayed acting in Maldives, but once it did, it got a handle on things.

On Iran too, India must cease sitting on the fence. Granted, there are energy security issues with Iran, and there's a significant Shia population in the country. But by (allegedly) employing an Indian national in the attack on the Israeli diplomat, Iran has crossed the red line. By locating its hostilities with Israel in India, Iran has put its relations with this country under severe strain. At some point, Iran has to be told off.

But that is one side of the story. The other relates to Iran's nuke programme and the world's (and India's) opposition to it. It is quite possible that Iran is using Israel as a blind to possess nukes whose real targets may be the Sunni kingdoms led by Saudi Arabia. But that makes its subterfuges even more dangerous.

In such a situation, India cannot privilege its energy security concerns over world opposition to Iranian nukes, and adopt a business-as-usual attitude regarding Iran. The Union commerce ministry's encouragement of more trade with Iran will come as a red rag to the great powers opposing Iran's nuke plans with sanctions and war threats. One of them, the US, a friendly power, has warned of sanctioning India over Iran. A pseudo-nationalistic rant against the United States won't help.

The Iran crisis has reached a tipping point. India has to seriously and demonstrably delink from Iran, rapidly sever its energy ties, and assist in the process to convince the Shia state to abandon its nuke programme and win peace and security for its citizens.

The longer major economic powers like India hold out, the more Iran gets sustenance to challenge international peace. Beyond energy security, Iran and India need one another in Afghanistan, and Iran is central to preserving the Shia-Sunni balance in the Middle East. But Iranian unilateralism is taking a toll. What madness, for example, gripped Iran to attack an Israeli diplomat on Indian soil?

All in all, India must demonstrate more foreign-policy pro-activity. In this strangely multi-polar world, either you imaginatively and creatively manage strategic affairs, or risk being run over. Non-alignment worked fine during the Cold War. For the post-post Cold War era, India must found its foreign policy on uncertainty. Time is running out.
N.V.Subramanian is Editor,, and writes internationally on strategic affairs.

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