India must set its house in order before venturing east or west – Rajiv Dogra

When the spider invited the fly to his parlour, she resisted. She responded prudently that if she stepped into his parlour she would be trapped forever. As with the fly, it must be said to India’s credit that we too had demurred initially. Indira Gandhi was distrustful of America. The US itself was a half-serious suitor, involved then in an intense relationship with Pakistan and later to some extent with China too. Occasionally, it kept flirting with India but it was perfunctory in its pursuit.

Like the spider, the US made the mistake of boasting about the riches of its house. And as with the fly, India was not interested in material lucre.

Once rebuffed, the spider changed tactics; this time he appealed to the fly’s vanity calling her witty and wise besides praising the beauty of her brilliant eyes and gauzy wings. Soon the fly walked into the parlour to become the spider’s meat.

The US too altered its approach towards India. Bush pretended to walk the extra mile for a special relationship. A nuclear agreement followed, and it was trumpeted promptly as a unique triumph of Indian negotiators, even as China and Pakistan were crossing and re-crossing routinely the no-go areas in the nuclear field. But we were ready to swoon into Bush’s arms.

When Obama came to India he massaged our ego by urging us not only to ‘look east’ but also to ‘act east’. Soon Hillary Clinton got into the act artfully, praising India at various fora. This was flattery with a purpose. From one among regional powers, we were first told soothingly that we were actually the regional power and then we were elevated further to being an Asian power.

Sometimes she exceeded herself and called us a great power; hinting that in the not-too-distant future we might even be a global power. All this was heady stuff, especially for a country which is only one among 20 in the global league. All this while, the US was pushing the case of its industry, especially fat contracts in the defence sector. The clever Clinton raised the pitch further by exhorting India to assume security responsibilities beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

We were hooked. Some Indian analysts swallowed the bait greedily, interpreting her exhortation as signal that we should set sail farther afield; that the Pacific Ocean should be India’s legitimate sphere of influence! But we were hardly aware that we had been snared; that we had stepped into the parlour. If ‘acting east’ was a suggestion, the US desire was that we should rush in to do their bidding in the west in Afghanistan. There was no reason for us to enter into a strategic agreement with powerless Karzai at this stage. Yet, we did precisely that. Will this turn out to be our perilous parlour?

For the US, this is a part of its new global strategy; outsource intervention, let someone else do their dirty work. They did it in Libya and are doing so now in Syria. They even have a name for this policy; ‘leading from behind’. Whether they do exactly that in Afghanistan, or a variation of it, is not the issue. The point to ponder for us is whether we have committed ourselves to more than we should have by signing that strategic agreement. If we have, it might prove to be as impractical as the other dream of putting the Indian and Pacific Oceans under our sphere of influence. In Afghanistan’s case we have the further handicap of lack of direct access and a hostile Pakistan. It will be like committing ourselves to a fight with our hands tied behind our back.

Moreover, shouldn’t we be more concerned about the challenges that we face within; of poverty, illiteracy, indifferent healthcare, poor infrastructure, the Maoist threat and the mounting fiscal deficit. Even as we struggle with these issues there is the threat of an aggressive China and an unpredictable Pakistan. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for us to secure ourselves against a Kargil type operation by China in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh before venturing far beyond our borders? What if China or Pakistan were to combine in a joint hostile action against us? Would our new friend, the US, come to our aid? In the pink of its economic and military health the US may not have intervened militarily in our favour; now it most certainly wouldn’t.

We may have stumbled into the parlour, but there is still time. We can withdraw to concentrate on our own affairs if we remember the counsel of that poem against evil counsellors.

A former diplomat, the writer is a novelist


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