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India: Sending A Wrong Signal

Date: Monday, 11-August-2008
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Brahma Chellaney
Times of India
August 10, 2008

Vision, consistency and tenacity are critical to good diplomacy.Pragmatic foreign policy, as legendary French diplomat Talleyrandsaid, has to shut out personal whims and fancies as well as too muchzeal. In that light, Sonia Gandhi's sudden decision to go to theBeijing Olympics runs counter to the central precepts of sound diplomacy.

That this would be her second visit to China in less than a yearsmacks not just of overzealousness but borders on indiscretion,coming as it does in the face of mounting Chinese assertiveness. Hervisit last October, in the company of son Rahul Gandhi, was ill-timedbecause it followed several provocative Chinese actions againstIndia. Her latest visit, with members of her extended family, followsmore Chinese provocations, including border incidents and thepost-midnight summoning of the Indian ambassador.

Reciprocity is the first principle of diplomacy. While no seniorChinese official has visited India since President Hu Jintao's late2006 stopover, a stream of Indians have continued to go to Beijing,despite rising Chinese cross-border incursions. This year alone,China has played host first to the prime minister, then to theexternal affairs minister, and now to Sonia Gandhi, with ManmohanSingh set to return to Beijing in October for the ASEM summit.

Sonia's visit comes soon after China slighted external affairsminister Pranab Mukherjee by cancelling his meeting with Premier WenJiabao and deputing a junior functionary to receiveearthquake-related relief from him.

That was not the only diplomatic snub recently. China publiclyextended an Olympic-ceremony invitation to the most powerful personin India but not to the Indian president or PM, although under therules such invitations are the prerogative of each participatingcountry's national Olympic committee.

The message was clear: Beijing does not care much for the dulyelected Indian government but knows where actual power resides andwhat strings to pull in India. It also correctly calculated thatunlike Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Stephen Harper, Donald Tusk andother leaders who are staying away from the Games ceremony, SoniaGandhi will not fuss about the continuing repression in Tibet orChina and attend, even though the Tibet issue is much closer toIndia's interests than to the boycotters'.

Sonia's fascination with China, as this writer learned long ago in aone-to-one meeting with her, dates back to her 1988 Beijing visitwith Rajiv Gandhi. The Chinese leadership rolled out all the pomp andpageantry, although that visit followed the 1987 Sumdorong Chumilitary showdown that brought war clouds out of a clear blue sky.Beijing's perception of Sonia as someone it can work with wasreinforced by her visit last October, when it accorded her a welcomefit for a head of state.

Her latest visit, at a time when China has stepped up pressure onIndia, will only help engender more Chinese pressure. By sowingconfusion in India's China policy, it not only sends out a messageincongruous with Indian interest, but also unconsciously plays intoBeijing's game plan to belittle the elected government as ineffectualand rudderless and reach out to her. Beijing is content that theIndian officialdom has fallen into the trap of talking about talks ina never-ending process. That leaves China free to pursue"congagement", a blend of containment symbolised by aggressiveflanking manoeuvres and engagement aided through the instrumentalityof Sonia Gandhi.

Given its stake in stable, peaceful ties with China, New Delhi wasright not to shun the Games ceremony, deputing the sports minister torepresent India. Befriend, not propitiate, ought to guide Indian policy.

Sonia's visit, however, throws a spanner in the carefully calibratedIndian approach. Her visit cannot be defended as personal orapolitical, for her presence at the Games ceremony sends out a potentpolitical message. To go with children and grandchildren and treatthe trip as all fun and games will be out of step with her politicalstatus. After all, she heads India's ruling party and her son is itsgeneral secretary. A jaunt fraught with foreign-policy implicationsis irreconcilable with such standing.

Sonia's ascension from humble origins is as much a tribute to hergrit as to the openness of her adopted country. But while Indiacelebrates diversity, China honours homogeneity. Sonia has to realiseshe is dealing with a state that has replaced Maoism with nationalismas the legitimating credo of the 59-year-old communist rule. Andhomogeny is implanted in both institutional structures and popular thought.

Ad hoc, personality-driven approach is no way to deal with such astate that calculatedly plays to its national pride and resolutelypursues long-term strategic interests. To upstage your own governmentthrough presence at China's coming-out party is no mean matter. Oncethe party is over, it may not be long before China takes its gloves off.

Given its growing bellicosity, can anyone discount the possibilitythat it may try to give India a bloody nose through a lightening butlocalised military expedition? Jawaharlal Nehru had advised that the1962 invasion become "a permanent piece of education". Today, notonly have the lessons of 1962 been forgotten, but also the flurry ofIndian officials visiting Beijing for the party shows the mannerIndia's self-esteem is ebbing.

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