One of the unfortunate consequences of India’s new hyphenation with China is that the two countries are cited in one breath over issues such as climate change, energy supplies, Africa and, now, Myanmar. Western countries—who have little leverage in Myanmar anyway—announce more sanctions with ease. Sanctions won’t be effective, we are repeatedly told, without the support of Myanmar’s chief trading partners. And last week, The Wall Street Journal carried a piece by America’s Burma hands suggesting that the nuclear deal with America somehow obliged India to “exert a positive influence in the neighbourhood”.
The West’s hypocrisy is palpable—one has only to look at its attitude towards the struggle for democracy in Pakistan—but do its arguments make sense? Petroleum minister Murli Deora went ahead with his trip to Myanmar, presumably having calculated that securing gas exploration rights outweighs concerns for democracy in that country. Calling off the trip would have sent a clear signal of India’s sympathy with the protesters’ cause. Does proceeding with the trip signal India’s support for the junta? Not necessarily, but many think so.
B. Raman, a perspicacious commentator, argued that “as the satyagraha succeeds in Myanmar —as it is bound to one day—and democracy is restored, India and its leaders would not be in their mind because they consistently avoided supporting them. India may have to pay a price for its moral cowardice, called realpolitik.”
Realpolitik, like pragmatism, risks becoming another abused word in our political lexicon. Just like pragmatism is often presented as a cover for surrender, pusillanimity is being projected as realpolitik. But realism does not mandate putting up with the junta. Rather, it calls for India to ensure that the balance of power —in the region and over Myanmar—allows India to protect its long-term interests. It is both lazy and myopic to argue that keeping the junta in power works to this end. Having to do business with those in power does not preclude seizing opportunities to effect positive change.
Apart from episodic tactical assistance in tackling insurgents in the North-East, India has achieved little by coddling the junta. Meanwhile, Myanmar has allowed China to set up listening posts in the Indian Ocean, given refuge to Pakistani nuclear scientists escaping American scrutiny and largely weighed in on China’s side in energy supply deals. It’s generally been a ride down the Irrawaddy for India. Indeed, it is arguable whether the current approach is any more beneficial to Indian interests than a more muscular one would have been.
So Raman is right—there is cowardice in India’s policy towards Myanmar. It only passes under the name of realpolitik.
The sheer civilizational sophistication in the Buddhist monks’ movement gives it a moral fibre uncommon in the contemporary world. But what are its prospects? Well, its trajectory will depend on two factors: first, how fast the protests become a movement involving people in their millions; and second, how long it can remain non-violent. Monks and their supporters are unlikely to be able to carry on a struggle that is both long-drawn and non-violent.
The junta could have decided to wait for the protests to fizzle out. Ignoring international pressure, it chose brutality instead. In doing so, it has set in motion the makings of a bloody tragedy. It cannot pull back without being seen as climbing down to the protesters. But the crackdown might also provoke more people to take on the dictatorship.
China, like Asean, only advised the junta against a violent crackdown. Along with Russia, it kept the issue out of the UN Security Council. Post-Abe Japan may have lapsed into its traditional reticence. Thailand, which might once have taken a bold position on democracy, is currently under military rule and passed the buck on to China and India. For its part, India chose to issue a waffling pro-forma statement calling for “all sides” to resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue.
Will India’s lack of support for democracy, as Raman warns, work against it in future? Again, not necessarily. As he himself writes in his memoirs, Bangladesh’s present-day leaders hardly factor in gratitude for past assistance while taking present-day policy positions.
To see international relations through the prism of gratitude is misleading. A future government of Myanmar cannot easily repudiate contracts its predecessor has signed, especially not those involving its neighbours. So India must not support democracy in order to merely ingratiate itself with Myanmar’s people. It must because doing so is in India’sinterests.
Ossification is the biggest problem with Indian foreign policy. Due to an absence of imaginative political stewardship, its positions do not change as fast as the circumstances demand. But in the absence of a strong Indian position, the field will be open for China. It will bolster its claims to regional leadership through initiatives—like in Darfur—that are little more than exercises in public relations. More importantly, countries in South-East Asia will become convinced that they cannot look towards New Delhi to balance China’s rising influence in the region.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati— The Indian National Interest Review. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org