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New Delhi needs an urgent course-correction – Arindam Mukherjee

My Uncle hiked duties on Indian exports recently. What did New Delhi do in reciprocation? Nothing. Uncle, emboldened by that, demanded a duty reduction for Harley bikes. How did New Delhi respond? Our PM called Scrooge personally to convey about the great compliance. Then, uncle said, hey, stop buying cheap Iran oil; buy through us. Sure, that’d be expensive, but what the hell. What did we do? We said yes master! and got down to buying through uncle. How did Scrooge respond to this incredibly compliant behaviour? His maintained his dismissive attitude, his disdain that he usually reserves for all the other political leaders (except Putin and Xi). Why does that man keep talking about some library that he built in Afghanistan, (W)e have to intervene in Kashmir otherwise the matter won’t ever be resolved by these two… and so on. And so what did we do in response? We are, as of now, trying to push massive Indian investments in uncle-land in energy projects.

These few sentences have in them fair merit to guide one’s understanding about where the Indo-Uncle relation is headed. Yet again. I remember watching on TV, Jaishankar being brought into the core team. I had a wee exchange with Debapriya Dam – my friend – about how I wasn’t too confident about this chap. But mob behaviour took over. Everyone was damn kicked and that got me. I began thinking that since Gokhale’s there already, we might expect some long-awaited balance and nuance in India’s international outreach programme.

Feels like another life.

Conceptually, the peril of treating uncle as Lord & Master is well-known. He kept slaves till a few years ago. It is just about scratching the surface.

Practically, uncle needs Pakistan to settle Afghanistan. (Of course, Afghanistan is in no mood to settle down so soon, and Uncle perhaps doesn’t care, as long as ‘settlement’ means what Uncle thinks it means.) Even the palm-civets that steal our fruits when windows are open know that. And uncle is absolutely vague on Indo-Pacific strategy for containing China, like uncle is absolutely vague on most other things these days. So why has Modi 2.0 suddenly dropped the art of diplomacy that it had come to practise and engage in throughout the latter half of 2018 (again, thanks to Gokhale), that was beginning to show results as far as assertive engagement with China or mini-steps towards regional integration were concerned? It is tougher being a good diplomat compared to being a good poodle. Many of us won’t mind being the latter if we are well looked after, given aromatic bath and have our coats brushed and all that. But would we risk diplomacy for Pedigree treats without any clarity of designation of whether we gonna be lapdogs or outhouse dogs?

The game is continuously changing. It might take some time for you to get in the groove, and it might take some more time for me. But sooner or later we’d all get the bottom-line clear: The. Game. Is. Continuously. Shifting. There are no long-term friends and enemies. In fact, there is no long term ‘anything’ anymore that’s part of this game. This is a quicksand chess: you are sinking, and so is everyone – whether you move your pieces or you don’t. What was and still is very, very dominant, is super-acute observation of your character. The participants watch you; they judge you. Relentlessly. And decide how to treat your ass: kiss it, kick it, or leave it be.

A cool example that underlines the changing nature of the game would jump up, if tomorrow Uncle and Iran were to kiss and make up at the UN session that’s on in just a few days. [These days Macron is keeping very busy, trying to negotiate between these two. Japan tried a few months ago. Nothing materialized, but this initiative got them a few brownie points. People are always judging, remember?]. If that happens, uncle would pat Tehran and move on as if everything’s cool. Smaller nations won’t count for obvious reasons… but what about the regional/strategic players? Out of Turkey, China, and India – nations that were threatened by uncle for buying cheap oil from Iran – the former two had extended their middle fingers to the threat while India was Pedigreed. This kind of a behaviour could (and would) affect Tehran’s dealings with New Delhi. And there WOULD BE scores of scopes for engagements, of that there are no doubts.

I might look down at people’s intelligence all along as I keep overestimating my personality appeal, but when I witness even failed states like Pakistan being dismissive of me every step of the way till I fire a few guns at them, that’s perhaps the time when I need to sit down and reassess a few things about my character, and performance.

India’s tremendous advantage in J&K is slowing down at an alarming rate. New Delhi refuses to initiate dialogues with Islamabad; guys there don’t realize that this kind of an initiative gets Pindi on the backfoot while augmenting India’s credibility at the international stage. New Delhi refuses to assure the valley crowd about their future; doesn’t realize that rhetoric about real estate is considered legit only if you include the people – no matter how cringeworthy they are to you. India’s economy has slowed down. There can be difference of opinions on the exact number/ percentage/ proportion, causes and effects – but slowed down it has. Energy and other imports, production, finance, agri, banks, IT, open market… each one emerges singing the same song.

I don’t know if the larger idea of New Delhi these days is to morph into another Pakistan – no economy, only alms. And I don’t know if by getting a new MEA, PM Modi has unwittingly introduced a schism in the place of better balance of vision about how India’s FP imperatives should be. What I do know is that Grand Chessboard players are anything but idiots. They read quite well the difference between strategic ambiguities that rise out of deliberation, and the ones that rise out of paralysis.

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