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Foreign Policy As ‘Performing Art’ And ‘Deals As Indispensable Liabilities’

By K.M. Seethi

11 June, 2016

Many eyebrows were raised when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered an ‘exciting’ speech in the Capitol Hill in Washington in the presence of an august audience in the Congress. ‘Research investigations’ were well underway whether it was an extempore speech or a ‘Modi-Tech Controlled Rendering.’ Social media world is all agog to know the ‘truth.’ ‘Researchers’ calculated that Modi ‘secured’ 10 standing compliments and 69 rounds of strident applauses. What a curious case of ‘quantitative’ analysis!

There is, of course, nothing wrong in using a teleprompter in a public speech, as Modi would have used it in the Capitol Hill, in terms of “serving its purpose.” Speeches of presidents, prime ministers, ministers, diplomats et al. are usually prepared well in advance (by concerned experts, or officials in charge) to avoid ‘slips’ especially when they are delivered in a special audience. Exception could be Nehru and a few others in India. Even Nehru used to keep notes prepared by him for ‘extempore’ speeches. Whether one uses a written text or a teleprompter, what matters is the content of the text, rather than the mode of presentation (by way of ‘performing art’!). Technology, of course, makes a difference in such situations of public/special addresses, but it would be ideal if a written text is in hand to avoid any unexpected slip or any unsolicited mudslinging that followed on this issue.

The content of the speech matters most, indeed.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India chose to visit the US first—not in search of any partnership in the American strategic games. Nehru unequivocally told them that India sought to sustain a distinct political stature and personality of its own in the midst of the cold war politics with the “Truman Doctrine” emerging as a new toolkit of American foreign policy. In his address (a short speech of just 15 minutes) to the US Congress in 1949 (sure, there was no teleprompter then), he reminded the Americans: "You will see that though India may speak to you in a voice that you may not immediately recognize, or that may perhaps appear somewhat alien to you, yet that voice somewhat strongly resembles what you have often heard before.” He was obviously referring to the autonomy of Indian foreign policy, which, later, was articulated and identified itself as ‘non-alignment.’ In that sense, Nehru himself emerged as Indian non-aligned policy’s ‘teleprompter,’ unmindful of its consequences for the country. Even Stalin called Nehru a ‘running dog of imperialism for his assertion of autonomy. How the non-alignment had been strengthened in the post-independence years, and then how it got diluted in subsequent years is a matter of history. ‘Strategic partnership’ has substituted ‘strategic autonomy’ of India over years and this has been cleverly done by successive Congress governments. This even prompted the Janata government (1977-79) to talk about ‘genuine non-alignment’ which Vajpayee repeated in his short tenure as foreign minister under the Janata regime.

Narendra Modi was born a few months after Nehru’s 1949 speech in the American Congress. The difference in speeches is so palpable to everyone’s ‘eyes.’ This can easily be described as ‘from autonomy to surrender.’ Everyone knows that Modi was even denied visa by the US for a decade due to his domestic records. Good that Modi talked about ‘freedom from fear’ in his speech: “All the 1.25 billion of our citizens have freedom from fear, a freedom they exercise every moment of their lives.” But the Americans have also been watching the ‘tolerance’ debate in India in the wake of series of killings and intimidations last year. Americans maintain ‘self respect’ throughout the world through their forceful and forthright public positions, on any matter about which people may have differences. India is apparently struggling to get ‘other respect’ through its ‘glasnostic’ skulduggery. Little do we discuss the short-term and long-term consequences of what went behind this diplomatic exercise.

A couple of months before Modi’s visit, the stage was set for deals after deals in vital strategic areas. For example, India entered into a Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US, which will lay open its military bases to the US, facilitating the American fighter planes and warships to operate from the Indian facilities. LEMOA forms part of a strategic package which will steer the high technology cooperation between Washington and its defence partners. India’s military deals with the US have taken a big jump during the last few months. India’s long cherished goal of manufacturing its own aircraft carrier with technological support from the US is being realised and New Delhi has also been negotiating for a similar deal to get jet engine technology. The central pillar of the Indo-US joint statement issued after the Obama-Modi meeting on June 7, 2016 is therefore so obvious. It significantly underlines the partnership in defence, besides cooperation over civil nuclear energy. It is not surprising that the proposed deal for the construction of 6 nuclear plants in India by the Westinghouse Electric Co., a U.S. unit of Toshiba Corp has gone unnoticed in the midst of other issues being discussed. Even the parties which opposed the “123 Agreement” and subsequently the “Liabilities Bill” in and outside parliament are silent on the question.

In the course of his speech, Modi said that the US is “an indispensable partner.” Nobody denies that the US is an important factor to be reckoned with in global politics. In that case, can Obama or the new incumbent in the White House next year say that India is an ‘indispensable partner’ for the US? If India cannot ‘assume’ that role, obviously the role that is reserved for India is a ‘junior partner.’ Junior partners’ will always be at the receiving end—serving the cause of the senior partner, on the one hand, and shouldering the liabilities of the ‘cause’ without any payoff for the latter.

K.M.SEETHI is Professor and Director, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Priyadarshini Hills PO., Kottayam, Kerala, India-686560, He is also Editor of South Asian Journal of Diplomacy and the Indian Journal of Politics and International Relations.



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