India’s great power status has been considerably diminished during the last few weeks. There is a striking paradox that while on the one hand, India aspires to permanent membership of the security council and is lobbying for an Indian to become secretary-general of the United Nations, its own global diplomacy on important crises is all but non-existent. West Asia stands on the edge of a precipice. Atavistic Iranian-backed groups like Hizbollah are creating what they intended all along: a wider west Asia conflagration premised on the following strategy. Through the use of terror, provoke Israel into a wider conflict. The wider conflict will, in turn, generate two contradictory movements. First, most governments in west Asia will be shown to be extremely weak, capable of nothing more than tepid condemnation of Israel. On the other hand, Israel’s brutal and unconscionable response will provoke more militancy in west Asia.
Hizbollah’s tactics have shown simultaneously that most states of the region, except Iran, do not have even a minimal grip on politics; and it has paved the way for inspiring more militancy. In a way, this is now an all-or-nothing gamble for Iran — either it will emerge even more powerful, or it may finally begin to generate a coalition to rein it in. Either way, west Asia will experience tumult.
On the other hand, Israel has played right into this atavistic design. The ferocity of its response to Hizbollah, its complete imperviousness to exploring any diplomatic solutions, will ensure that the conflict continues. The United States of America, which has destroyed west Asian politics four times over, will simply let this conflict simmer. The US has ensured that west Asian politics is now more in the hands of insurgents than the states of the region; it has followed a disastrous strategy for Iraq; Afghanistan looks more precarious than ever, and Iran has emerged as an even bigger player than it was.
With an atavistic Iran, an assertive Israel, incompetent local states, a US that seems to thrive on more violence in west Asia, and enough radical groups like Hizbollah around, the stage is set for a combustible mixture. Israel might agree to NATO troops as part of a ceasefire in Lebanon. But it is likely that the presence of even more NATO troops in the region will fuel the fires of radicalism.
This is a huge crisis. Given the predilections of the key players, there is very little India or any one else can do. But what is stunning is our absolute silence on the issue. It would serve India’s interests greatly if it were to remain neutral in this conflict; but it does not serve India’s stature if it lets the conflict pass by without reasoned comment. There are two ways of showing neutrality. One is the pusillanimous, “we will avoid the issue” approach. The other is a confident articulation of “a plague on both your houses” story. West Asia, at the moment, is indeed a “plague on all your houses” story, with almost no one acting responsibly. India could show that it is capable of playing with the big boys if it had been able to articulate a forthright stand on the matter. Instead, it appears to be ducking for cover.
Take another issue that India has made so much its own: terrorism. India did manage to get the G-8 to condemn terrorism, but it is inexplicable why we thought of that as a supreme diplomatic triumph. For one thing, we were extremely unprepared to make our case to the international community. There is evidence of a general nature about terrorist groups operating on Pakistani soil, and Dawood Ibrahim consorting with the high and mighty in Pakistan. But this evidence has been around for a while.
What new evidence were we able to present to the international community about Pakistan’s complicity' If there was such evidence, what specific actions have we been able to elicit from the international community' And if there was no clear evidence, why did we invite the implicit reproach from the US' We don’t know what the truth of the matter is, but our handling of this issue does not inspire confidence.
Part of the difficulty, of course, is the fact that we are ourselves unclear about what story to tell about terrorism. Is it home-grown' Is it a geo-strategic move on Pakistan’s part' Is it international jihad' Is it all of the above' But then, our foreign policy stands should wrestle with our genuine dilemmas, not rest upon largely soppy and symbolic assurances that the world stands united against terrorism.
Take the American position, for instance. Amidst all the talk of strategic partnership, what is the ground reality of Indo-US cooperation on terrorism' Part of the difficulty is that our own government will not be forthright and tell us exactly what results this partnership has achieved. Indirect evidence suggests that apart from some intelligence-sharing, not much is happening on the ground. A normative consensus on terrorism notwithstanding, there is a fundamental difference between India’s and the US’s interests and assessments on terrorism. Yet these get quickly elided over in our zeal to show that the world is with us. That aspiration takes precedence over hard assessments of the stakes.
Or take another issue that will make the headlines soon. Many analysts had predicted that one of the fall-outs of the Indo-US nuclear deal wound be greater nuclear competition in south Asia. There are some unconfirmed reports that Pakistan is already pursuing this path, and there is good reason to believe that the Chinese might upgrade their nuclear engagement with Pakistan in the near future. This may be a price that we are willing to pay for the nuclear deal, but are we fully aware of the stakes' It is a sign of how diminished our thinking has become that we continue to insist that the deal is simply about ending nuclear apartheid and securing energy for India. But what kind of global nuclear order do we want' Besides securing concessions for ourselves, will we have any role in shaping this order'
We are relatively peripheral in shaping the discourse on two issues that are most proximate to us: the global nuclear order and terrorism. It would, therefore, be a tall order to expect that we would play in role in the coming crisis in west Asia. It will be something of an achievement if we can come out of this crisis untainted by our default association with the US. Whatever our official protestations, our response is muted. In this matter, as with much else, we operate under three shadows: the presumed ghosts of domestic politics, an excessive solicitousness towards the US, and lack of clarity about what we stand for. Add to this a kind of institutional disarray, and our capacity for being a player looks mightily exaggerated.
There was a joke doing the diplomatic circles in Delhi that India wants an Indian secretary-general of the UN because it cannot have an Indian foreign minister. In its own way, this piece of trivia is symptomatic of our ideological and organizational disarray. India’s power in the world is never going to be a function of its military or economic strength, although these matter a good deal. It is rather going to stem from its power as an exemplar that can stand above the defining faultlines of world politics and can act as a genuine interlocutor in the mad clash of civilizations. But India is increasingly unsure of what it stands for, and is therefore unable to play a role commensurate with its ambitions.