Editorial: High-wire act of diplomacy
All of last week, S Jaishankar was in New York and Washington defending India against questions on the Harneet Singh Nijjar killing in Canada, the treatment of minorities in India, and the country’s general backsliding on democracy.
CHENNAI: The last week of September is a busy time for India’s foreign policy. The annual UNGA session has in recent years been an opportunity for PMs to strike a pose to the world. For years, UNGA week and satellite appearances at think tanks served us well to put the fix on Pakistan. We had a plausible peeve about its support to terrorism in India, and there always was credible evidence available of it. We therefore had the world’s ears. But now, the tone has changed.
All of last week, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was in New York and Washington defending India against questions on the Harneet Singh Nijjar killing in Canada, the treatment of minorities in India, and the country’s general backsliding on democracy. While advocates of a very muscle-bound India will argue that all this is a corollary outcome of our emergence as a global power, these are altogether challenging times for those who shape and articulate our foreign policy.
Even as Jaishankar was explaining India’s stance on Canada’s allegations that Indian operatives had a role in the killing of Khalistan activist Nijjar on Canadian soil, Sikh separatists blocked Indian high commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, from entering a gurudwara in Glasgow. This is an offshoot of our dust-up with Canada, and it can be assumed that we will in future see more such acts in the UK, Canada, Australia and USA, where small groups of separatists can work up disproportionate noise and play up to a media that has already been keened to India’s recent record on human rights and press freedom.
There are moves already by separatists, Dalit activists and liberals to lobby local congressmen and MPs to raise questions on the assorted deeds of the BJP-led government, and it shall fall to foreign policy practitioners to find the right words and nuances to explain it all.
Critics of the Modi government’s muscular foreign policy are also likely to point to the results of the Maldivian elections last week and ask why a decade of flexing that musculature has only led to the loss of our influence in Nepal, Sri Lanka and now the Maldives. In the Maldives, the loss of the India-friendly incumbent Mohamed Solih to the opposition candidate Mohamed Muizzu, who campaigned on a platform of hostility to any Indian presence on the island, opens up an opportunity for China to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean. The closure, also last week, of the Afghanistan embassy in New Delhi also adds to this scenario of challenges to our foreign policy, which call for a nuanced response rather than bluster.
To be fair to Jaishankar, his defence of India’s position in the face of searching questions on the Canadian allegations was quite deft, as might be expected of an experienced diplomat. Without sounding truculent, he suggested that self-appointed arbiters of a “rules-based order” exempt themselves from adhering to it while expecting emerging powers to toe the line. It’s a tough brief India’s EAM is executing. Under Prime Minister Modi, India’s national security apparatus has been given a fuller rein than it has ever had before, which has led to it encroaching on the ground of diplomacy. While the diplomat works under the full light of day, the national security operative has no need to do so. Yet, it is the diplomat who has to square up to the questions this might raise.