Asked about India’s stance on the developments in Syria, a senior external affairs ministry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, ‘There are no Indians in Syria. We do not have any stakes there.’ It does not mean that India turns a blind eye to the West Asian country being pushed into the vortex of a crisis by the United States, Great Britain, and to an extent France, in their zeal to bring down the hateful Ba’ath dictatorship in Damascus. The official clarified that India would be guided by the Arab League’s stance in Syria’s case. The 22-nation Arab League is a divided house on almost all the region’s important issues.
The same official said India is not too bothered about the Taliban in Afghanistan because the reconciliation process between the Karzai government and the Taliban is not going anywhere. There is no need for India to consider what its position should be if the Taliban are to be reintegrated into the democratic Afghan polity.
It is not just the government, the foreign office in particular, that does not look beyond its nose and think of the state of world affairs because it is seen as an empty exercise. Most retired diplomats and a majority of foreign policy pundits and strategic affairs experts in the country are of the unanimous view that India should think of its own interests, mind its own business and not talk of things that do not concern the country. They confine themselves to analyses of India-US, India-China, India-Pakistan relations. Even here, it is considered unimportant and even unnecessary to think of a conceptual framework to build these blinkered bilateral relations.
The government and experts are sure to argue that India is actively engaged with the rest of the world in many ways and that it is not insular by any stretch of the imagination. It will be pointed out that India is part of the G20 countries that are closely interacting with the G8 in dealing with the prevalent economic pandemic that broke out in 2008. India has also managed to increase its quota weight marginally in the International Monetary Fund and it is pressing for the reforms of the global economic institutions. And there are also the two groups where India is an important member — the BRICS, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and IBSA, which includes India, Brazil and South Africa. India is also knocking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it is an insider/outsider in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, nearer home.
The counter-argument remains weak and unconvincing. India is still not calling the shots or setting the agenda in the G20. BRICS is an appellation that was created by international economics experts and it is not of India’s making. It is only after the outside observers identified these countries as belonging to the category of emerging market economies, that India has half-heartedly activated the grouping in an informal manner. IBSA is more formalised but it lacks rationale and traction. The country is not comfortable in SAARC, and Pakistan has managed to corner New Delhi by bringing in China and the US as observers even as China keeps India out of SCO. India finds itself on both sides of the fence at world climate summits, arguing for developing countries and only too ready to make unofficial deals with the developed countries inside committee rooms at the same time.
When India does make woolly gestures as an international player, it finds itself in the embarrassing position of being alone and the others refusing to recognise or work with it. There are two clear examples. The first is the silly idea of reviving the ancient Nalanda University. Nalanda was a Buddhist learning centre to which Buddhist scholars from China and other parts of Buddhist Asia came. It was a different period with a different cultural flavour. Present-day India could have drawn inspiration from Nalanda and created a new university with global appeal. Instead, the government chose to set up the Nalanda International University hoping that countries like Japan and Thailand, and even China, would contribute. The project refuses to take off because the idea behind it is so bad. India has been left to hold the baby, with other countries showing no interest and contributing no money worth talking about. Meanwhile, the inevitable distortions and contortions have crept in. The mentors group of Nalanda suggested that the international relations d epartment of the revived Nalanda should be located in New Delhi and not in situ, in Nalanda, Bihar. The argument was that it will be easy to attract the faculty involved in international relations if the department is in New Delhi. The parliamentary committee for the ministry rightly rejected the idea. The other Indian gesture is that of the South Asian University as part of a bid to forge better SAARC bonds. The university is located in New Delhi, the land has been allotted, construction is moving at snail’s pace. There are a few hundred students of this university who are studying computer courses of this incipient institution. An uninspiring tale if there was one!