The visit of Barack Obama to India began with commentators generally treating him with suspicion. Obama appeared to be damaged goods after his party's drubbing in the mid-term election. He had repeatedly made statements against outsourcing, interpreted as harbingers of a new protectionism and a threat to India's software services exports. During his Presidential campaign, he'd suggested the US prod India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, an idea that's anathema to the Indian establishment. By the time the US President left the country, his visit was being hailed an unqualified success, having combined symbolic value with practical progress. His speech to Parliament pressed all the right buttons, referring to the invention of zero, the Panchatantra, Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda and Ambedkar.
At one point during his lavish praise of India, however, Obama pointed to a shortcoming in India's diplomatic policy. He said, "Every country will follow its own path. No one nation has a monopoly on wisdom, and no nation should ever try to impose its values on another. But when peaceful democratic movements are suppressed - as in Burma - then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protestors and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade. It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime. It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see.
Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community - especially leaders like the United States and India - to condemn it. If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues." It's been a while, in fact, since India took a principled stand on any important international problem. A perception is growing that we punch below our weight in multilateral fora, bogged down by our obsession with Pakistan. While Turkey and Brazil attempt to play mediators between Iran and the West, for example, India's stance on the issue of Iran's nuclear programme has been uncomfortable and uncertain. This is strange coming from a nation that long considered itself a leader among Third World countries.
Looking back on the six decades since independence, India can be said to have gone through three stages in the way it has seen itself with respect to the world. The first phase, dominated by Jawaharlal Nehru, could be called the Age of Idealism. Avowedly internationalist and moral in orientation, India's foreign policy proposed in this period to foster a brotherhood of developing nations.
After the wars of 1962 and 1965, the policy became untenable, and a more muscular approach was sought. Indira Gandhi inaugurated what I call the Age of Hypocrisy. During the two decades when she was the dominant political figure, a wide gap opened between rhetoric and practice in domestic as well as international matters. Non-alignment continued to be a cornerstone of foreign policy even while there was an actual shift toward the Soviet pole. The rhetoric of Gandhi and Nehru still had wide currency even as the nation developed and used its military force assertively. The oxymoronic phrase Peaceful Nuclear Explosion encapsulates the contradictions inherent in India's approach at this stage.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed and India abandoned the License Raj, we entered the current stage, which might be termed the Age of Pragmatism. When nuclear tests were conducted in 1998, they were clearly precursors to overt weaponisation, and nobody pretended otherwise. Our objection to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, presented for decades as principled, could now be interpreted as a matter of convenience. The 9/11 terrorist attack and its aftermath brought the West's view into alignment with the Indian establishment's own perceptions. The charges of human rights violations had been raised against India by many Western governments through the 1990s grew subdued.
With the Civil Nuclear agreement removing most of the sanctions placed on India since 1974, and President Obama's backing for India's claims to a place within an expanded group of permanent security council members, a new stage may open up in India's interactions with the world. In some matters, we will be expected to engage in moral as well as practical terms, and this will inevitably raise complaints of double standards, elicit the response that we ought to cast out the beam in our own eye before desiring to remove the mote in our brother's eye.
Such reactions will seem justified unless we clean up our act substantially. For how could we condemn Burma for its long detention of Aung San Suu Kyi - which has just ended, but who knows for how long - when successive Indian governments have for a decade played a charade of releasing and immediately re-arresting Irom Sharmila? Her Gandhian protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act began following a massacre of innocents by Indian soldiers. How can we criticise the gunning down of peaceful protestors in other countries when our own forces do the same with impunity? I am not for a moment suggesting that India has as bad a record as Burma or Sudan when it comes to upholding democratic rights, only that there are glaring deficiencies in the availability of democratic freedoms to many sections of the citizenry. While we lag in that department, we cannot expect to play a more substantial role in world affairs. We need not just the economic power gained during the Age of Pragmatism and the military muscle developed since the Age of Hypocrisy but also the ethical outlook prevalent during the Age of Idealism.
Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.