It is a facile assumption, harking back to Metternich perhaps, that foreign policy should always be based on self-interest. The immediate conclusion that is drawn from this is that foreign policy is bereft of principle and ideology. The mandarins in India’s foreign office are recent converts to these tenets. One of the earliest victims of this foreign policy based on realism was none other than Aung San Suu Kyi whose visit to India was marked with great and justified public acclaim. Ms Suu Kyi, while deeply appreciative of the reception she received, did not hesitate to remind the wise men in the ministry of external affairs that the latter, by choosing to flirt with the military junta in Myanmar, had for all practical purposes abandoned her and her cause. Her Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture can only be interpreted as a characteristically gentle push to India’s conscience. The point was made with so much grace that it made no one squirm but neither could anyone miss what she was suggesting. The references Ms Suu Kyi made to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru implied the significance of principles and ideology. In interviews she said that India had deviated from the principles of Gandhi when India had chosen to sup with the junta albeit with a long spoon.
The makers of Indian foreign policy had felt in the middle of the 1990s that by remaining aloof from the generals in Yangon, it was only providing a free field to the Chinese in establishing an anchor in Myanmar. Such realistic concerns had brought about a shift in India’s policy and a muting of India’s support, overt and covert, to Ms Suu Kyi and her democracy movement. The shift obviously rankled. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the reasoning behind the shift was somewhat specious. There is no tangible evidence that India made any substantive gains from this shift. But it certainly lost face and trust with one of the greatest of public figures in the contemporary world. Realism is often afflicted by myopia. The old order is changing fast in Myanmar and one of the key factors in that transformation is Ms Suu Kyi. India cannot ignore this and the shadow of its past ‘realist’ foreign policy will fall on its engagement with Myanmar. It may be advisable occasionally to listen to one’s conscience than to Metternich.