Cheek-turners as leaders

Brahma Chellaney, INDIA TODAY, September 2, 2013, Upfront column, page 10

George Washington famously said, “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace—one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity—it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.” India, however, has stomached not just insults but also acts of cross-border aggression by Pakistan while continuing to sing peace to its tormentor, a smaller state by every yardstick. No amount of terror has convinced India to change course—not even the Pakistani-scripted attacks on symbols of Indian power, including Parliament, Red Fort, stock exchange, national capital, business capital and IT capital.

Each act of aggression has been greeted with inaction and stoic tolerance. For a succession of prime ministers, every new attack has effectively been more water under the bridge. Manmohan Singh—the weakest and most clueless of them—has put even the internationally unprecedented Mumbai terrorist siege behind him by delinking dialogue from terrorism and resuming cricketing ties.

If anyone questions this approach of turning the other cheek to every Pakistani (or Chinese) attack, government propagandists retort, “Do you want war?” This mirrors the classic argument of appeasers that the only alternative to appeasement is all-out war. As the proverbial extremists, appeasers are able to see only the extreme ends of the policy spectrum: Propitiation and open warfare.

UpfrontThe appeasers thus have presented India with a false choice: Either persevere with pusillanimity or risk a full-fledged war. This false choice, in which the only alternative to appeasement is military conflict, is an immoral and immoderate line of argument designed to snuff out any legitimate debate on rational options. There are a hundred different options between these two extremities that India must explore and pursue. Indeed, only a policy approach that avoids the extremes of abject appeasement and thoughtless provocation can have merit.

The appeasers also argue that neighbours cannot be changed. So, as Singh has said blithely, “a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Pakistan” is in India’s “own interest.” But political maps are never carved in stone, as the breaking away of South Sudan, East Timor and Eritrea has shown. Didn’t Indira Gandhi change political geography in 1971? In fact, the most-profound global events in recent history have been the disintegration of several states, including the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Even if India cannot change its neighbours, it must seek to change their behaviour so that it conforms to international norms.

Yet India has shied away from employing even non-coercive options to discipline a wayward Pakistan, which is waging low-intensity unconventional warfare. Rather than squeeze Pakistan economically and diplomatically, India is doing just the opposite. Similarly, India has stepped up its propitiation of China, in spite of facing a Sino-Pak pincer offensive centred on Jammu and Kashmir: Chinese incursions into Ladakh have increased in parallel with Pakistani ceasefire violations. Still, Singh is determined to meet his Pakistan counterpart in New York and later pay obeisance to an increasingly combative China on yet another trip to Beijing.

By going with an outstretched hand to adversaries still engaged in hostile actions, India repeatedly has got the short end of the stick. Nothing better illustrates India’s clap-when-given-a-slap approach than the way it portrayed the 19-km Chinese encroachment in April-May as a mere “acne” and tried to cover up the Pakistan Army’s role in the recent Indian soldiers’ killing. A hawk is defined in the U.S. as someone who seeks the use of force pre-emptively against another country. But in India—reflecting the ascendancy of cheek-turners and the country’s consequent descent as an exceptionally soft state—a hawk has come to signify someone who merely advises against turning the other cheek to a recalcitrant or renegade neighbour.

An easy way for Indian diplomacy to make the transition from timidity to prudence is to start spotlighting plain facts on cross-border aggression. Yet the Indian political class is so busy feathering its own nests that it is willing to even twist facts about how soldiers were martyred and suppress figures showing a rising pattern of Chinese incursions.

How does one explain that leaders, while shrewd and calculating in political life, have pursued a fundamentally naïve foreign policy that has shrunk India’s regional strategic space and brought its security under siege? The answer lies in one word: Corruption. Untrammelled corruption has spawned a political class too compromised to safeguard national interests. Appeasement thus thrives, with the ministry of external affairs effectively being turned into the ministry of external appeasement. India’s reputation as weak-kneed indeed has become the single most important factor inviting aggression, spurring a vicious circle.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) India Today, 2013.