Opinions

Your Own Private Foreign Policy

Over the last few days, before SM Krishna called his counterpart offering help, many of my friends complained that India -- that is, the Indian government -- had not offered any humanitarian assistance to flood-ravaged Pakistan. 'Politics,' some said, should be set aside in the face of the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Pakistani people. Others argued that giving aid will change the 'politics' itself, for when ordinary Pakistanis see India as among those who helped them during their time of need, hearts and minds will change, undermining the anti-India position of their government.

On the other side were those, like Atanu Dey, who offered the compelling logic that since money is fungible, giving money to the Pakistani government for flood relief is equivalent to giving money to that government to fund cross-border terrorism or build nuclear weapons. Moreover, another argument goes, since the wishes of the Pakistani people are weakly expressed in their government's policies, changing hearts and minds won't make the military establishment stop terrorism directed against India.

Wherever you stand on this issue, what you will notice is that people implicitly assume that when it comes to foreign affairs "India" means only the Indian government.

A few years ago, after France passed laws restricting the wearing of turbans, people lobbied the Indian government to intervene on behalf of French Sikhs. The Indian prime minister sent a special envoy to Paris, to "impress upon President Chirac the significance of the turban to the Sikh faith." The irony of one famously secular state taking up a religious cause with another famously secular state apart, this was an unwarranted interference into the domestic affairs of another democratic republic. And again, when Malaysia's Tamil minority was out on the streets protesting against discrimination, Dr Singh's government gave in to public pressure, gratuitously expressed concern over that country's domestic politics, and received a rebuff.

Now, the Indian government is obliged to protect the lives and interests of its citizens anywhere their blue passports takes them. It has little business taking up cudgels of behalf of people who might be of Indian origin, but are nevertheless citizens of another country. You could say that everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights in authoritarian regimes, but if the other country happens to be a democratic republic with rule of law, what grounds does the government of India have to interfere?

Does this mean Indians should stop caring about what happens around the world? Not quite. It only means that Indians should stop seeing the government has having a monopoly on foreign affairs. There is nothing to stop individuals, NGOs and media from taking an active interest in the world outside India's borders. There is nothing to stop us from standing up for whatever cause we like. There is nothing to stop us from drawing attention to the plight of the world's oppressed people, collect funds, mobilise volunteers, build institutions, lobby foreign governments and deliver social services beyond India's shores.

Sure, we could also persuade the Indian government as part of our activism, but what stops us from getting on with it in spite of the Indian government? A large number of NGOs at home do valuable work despite the government. Why should it be any different abroad?

In fact, it is in India's national interest for civil society to become a foreign policy player in its own right. Governments are constrained by realpolitik. They follow the grammar of power. Civil society does not have the same constraints. It is free to speak the language of values. The Tibetan struggle, for instance, is one area where India's overall policy has benefited from citizen activism. Similarly, after the 2005 earthquake, Infosys announced that it would provide Rs 10 million in aid to Pakistan. Many of us donated money for Haiti's earthquake victim through the Red Cross and through religious institutions. These are, however, isolated and sporadic instances.

We should ask ourselves why India's civil society is not a significant international player? The primary reason, I would say, might be the mindset that sees the government as the Grand Solver of Problems. As long as this mindset is dominant, lesser hurdles like lack of financial resources, organisational capabilities and channels of action will appear insurmountable. Another reason is our tendency to contemplate our collective navels, for there are innumerable, seemingly intractable problems at home that deserve our attention. "[So] far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned," the historian K M Panikkar noted, "we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance… This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent."

This, though, is changing, as economic growth increases disposable incomes and as we come to be better informed by the world's media. That begs the question: why is it that we are only informed by the world's media? Isn't it a grand lack of imagination that hundreds of our TV news channels fight for ratings by covering essentially the same domestic stories, only differentiating themselves using ever higher decibel levels? Isn't it ironic that it is the likes of Qatar's Al Jazeera and China's CCTV-4 that challenge the Western media's hold on the grand narrative? As Indian civil society takes a greater interest in the world, one or more Indian international TV news channels will be invaluable.

So forget about New Delhi's offer and Islamabad's response. Think about the enormous human tragedy that is unfolding across our north-western borders. Then think of the political consequences, not least the real risk that the disaster will end up strengthening the bad guys. Think also of the hapless people in Balochistan, where the Pakistani government has banned international relief agencies from operating. You might find some factors more important than others, depending on your personal values, beliefs and hopes. Then do what you think is appropriate.

Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of
Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.

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