| Too little, too late
The legendary Bhishma Pitamaha was the earliest exponent of duplicity in public policy. Unable to decide which set of grandchildren to support in the epic Mahabharata war, he finally sided with the evil Kauravas. But not before assuring the Pandavas that his soul was with them and only his body was with the Kauravas.
In continuation of such duplicitous behaviour, the Vajpayee government may claim that it stands for the importance of the United Nations security council, but its soul has already been sold to the Americans. The perceived Indian ambiguity on the invasion of Iraq speaks volumes for its leadership, its elite and its people. New Delhi has refused to condemn the invasion of Iraq but continues to pay lip-service to the need to avoid war and respect the UN. The Indian public may be personally outraged by the war but is somnolent in its collective response to it.
The demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in India have been sporadic and nowhere comparable in strength to those in other parts of the world. In south Asia itself, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have seen a larger demonstration of public anger. But in Delhi, not even five thousand people have turned out to protest against the war.
If ordinary folk were looking for guidance from those at the helm of affairs, this has not been forthcoming. Instead, those in power are trying to obfuscate the issue. India has made formal noises critical of the war. But its real support for the US-led invasion is expressed in its refusal to unequivocally condemn the act. This is the result of expediency and not of any well-defined foreign policy doctrine.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is truly a party of petty businessmen — it cannot see beyond minor advantages to be had out of the Iraq crisis. The Indian position on Iraq is a result of a certain hopefulness about strategic gains as the situation unfolds. New Delhi realizes that the war in Iraq will create a ferment in the Muslim world. Iraq is just the beginning of the United States of America’s engagement with a Muslim country — subsequently it would have to deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others. There are powerful forces in New Delhi which view the conflict in Iraq through communal glasses and believe that India stands to gain from this “conflict of civilizations”.
New Delhi also recognizes that this war will change the laws that govern the behaviour of the comity of nations. Just as the League of Nations gave way to the UN, so too would this UN give way to another set of institutions governing interaction among nations. India hopes to be a party to the redefining of the game and, possibly, a gainer in the process.
India is also preparing, in the words of veteran Congress leader Arjun Singh, to partake in “a feast of vultures” — for, economic benefits may flow from the reconstruction of a post-war Iraq. Even if American and British companies mop up a majority of the reconstruction contracts, they would need subcontractors as well as racially and culturally acceptable frontmen to interface with the Iraqis. The expectation is that Indians would have an important role to play in Iraq’s reconstruction. Because of the past relationship with India, the Iraqis would prefer them over others (say, the Chinese) — or so the calculation goes.
India at one time saw Iraq as a valuable secular ally in a sea of Islamic regimes in west Asia. Iraq consistently supported India on Kashmir — daring to go against the opinion of the other Arab countries. However, today New Delhi seems to have jettisoned what is being described as the “emotional” baggage of the past in favour of “realpolitik” — the public face of what is best described as the “kiss-ass” policy for protecting one’s national interests. This saves India the arduous task of rethinking its position in a rapidly changing world and there is, of course, the promise of the crumbs that might be thrown to the loyal puppy.
The combination of these factors might explain New Delhi’s need to be ambiguous on Iraq in public while perhaps secretly praying for American success. However, they are not sufficient explanation for the lack of public protests.
One can only offer several hypotheses in an attempt to understand why the protests against the Iraq war have been muted in a country of one billion people.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of India in recent times has been that unlike Europe and America, it has not witnessed peace movements of any significant dimension. There has been nothing like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or Europe for Nuclear Disarmament in India in terms of its sheer scale. In Europe, where several nations already possessed nuclear weapons, the catastrophic consequences of a potential nuclear confrontation with the former Soviet Union led to the birth of the peace movement. But in India, nuclear weapons have been and continue to be projected as popular symbols of a great state.
India has also not seen the birth of any international human rights movement. What it has witnessed is the growth of civil liberties groups, in the wake of the Emergency and state violence against Marxist-Leninist (Naxalite) radicals. These groups are nothing more than a congregation of vocal urban intellectuals or fronts for the underground. They cannot be described as a movement and their world-view has been highly localized. India has not witnessed an anti-racist movement either — not now and not even during the freedom movement. India in fact is a highly colour conscious society and discrimination in terms of colour is evident everywhere.
India has also had few heroes with an international vision. The anti-colonial and anti-imperialist phase of Indian political consciousness has been on a steady decline after the Nehru years. There is a youthful emergent leadership in India involved in local struggles. But leaving aside some globalized godmen, there are no public figures in India with any following, who have an international vision.
India’s cultural elite is extremely limited. A social elite is sought to be created by the media by emphasizing the importance of the social register over social change — through an incessant recording of the shenanigans of the rich and the bored. This aspiring elite would do anything for a US visa or a Green Card for their children.
It suits it to argue for a new realism in foreign policy — of accepting American supremacy. And an articulate section of the media seeks to aggressively create a new social and political consensus against the humanitarian, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist concerns of our history. Such aggression in the media is fuelled by attendance at the US ambassador’s parties and, in some cases, the chosen journalists being the “Knights” at his infamous “round table”.
In short, the Indian public, across the spectrum, is not being sensitized to an internationalist, humanist vision either through participation in struggles for non-localized causes or through guidance from its political leaders. It would not be an exaggeration to say that India is increasingly becoming an insular society — somewhat like the US.