Saturday, February 26, 2005

From Morality to Pragmatism: A Pendulum Swung Too Far

For decades, India lectured the world on morality in geo-politics -- the thought being that high-minded rhetoric, and actions, were sufficient substitutes for our lack of military and economic strength.

Consequently, we became isolated from our natural allies, the liberal democracies of the West, instead toasting third world wolves like Arafat and Castro and Mugabe and Suharto in our, ironically, democratic castle. We also somehow credited Soviet-style totalitarianism with morality -- laying the blame for our non-aligned misery solely on the "imperial" West, i.e. America. Our leftist intellectuals romanticized our poverty while their political counterparts plotted democractic and Maoist revolutions (sometimes simultaneously!!) for control of the Indian soul.

Lord knows, we still have such America-baiting intellectuals and politicians around -- some are even in our Government. But, India has become a great deal more pragmatic in its geo-political conduct. Lets first cheer this development.

Next, lets tear our "pragmatic" new avatar to shreds. We think the pendulum has swung much too far from excessive morality to excessive pragmatism. Consider the following:

India has oil interests in Sudan -- so, we keep mum about the on-going savagery in Darfur.
India needs Iran's LNG -- so, we decline to press the Islamic Republic on its democracy deficit.
India needs Russian weaponry and oil concessions (not to mention support for our embarrassing pleas for a UNSC permanent seat; on this, see How to deal with the gang in New York) -- so, we overlook Mr. Putin's thuggery.
India intends building energy pipelines through Burma and Bangladesh -- so, we turn away from Ms. Suu Kyi's much-too-long house arrest and politico-religious fascism in places like Sylhet.

Now, we understand the need to be pragmatic -- and applaud our forward diplomacy to secure our long-term energy interests. But, the cost of this pragmatism has been high -- we have not just descended from our much-too-talkative moral high-horse, we seem to have lost our ability to speak about geo-political morality at all. And when we do stand up for democracy, as we recently did by canceling the SAARC summit to protest the royalist coup in Kathmandu, complex issues arise, as discussed at length by The Acorn, which really leave GOI in a bind.

We really need to find ways for reconciling our pragmatism with our morality. We will likely never fully succeed in this, but if we don't even try, lest we upset our energy suppliers, we might as well run our internal combustion engines on the blood of their victims. Conversely, if we are at all successful, we would blaze a new trail with a worthy idea for fellow democracies to emulate.

So, how should we promote our political values in tyrannies we, unfortunately, need to do business with?

Here's one thought -- its not a fully-formed thought, perhaps not even a practical thought, but hopefully it's a conversation starter.

India could create a statutorily protected Democracy Commission (ala the Election Commission) to promote our democratic values. This DC could be India's face as a protector, a safe haven, an inspiration, and a resource bank for foreign democracy activists being suppressed by tyrannies.

The DC must be independent of the Government of the day and, via EC-like statutory protection, should have maximum immunity against short-term political pressures. Thus, the Government of the day can neither influence the Commission, nor be held responsible for the Commission's actions.

The DC could be funded by voluntary contributions by Indians (who could, for example, give as they do to charities and/or divert a capped fraction of their taxes -- 0.02% of taxes, on average, would amount to ~$10mm/Rs.45crores per annum). [A good parallel is the US taxpayers' ability to check off a box in their annual tax returns that if checked, diverts $3 to fund presidential campaigns. This creates a voluntary mechanism for Americans to fund these campaigns.]

This arrangement will then allow GOI to fete Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharazzi, while the DC simultaneously providing resources to Prof. Shirin Ebadi in her duel with the Ayatollah regime, or for the GOI to honor the Myanmarese dictator Than Shwe even as the DC hosts Burmese democracy activists plotting a peaceful regime change! Who says we cannot walk and chew gum at the same time!

If Mr. Kharazzi and General Shwe object to the DC's activities, Shri. Natwar Singh could safely shrug his shoulders and claim helplessness, citing the DC's statutory independence -- then, he could raise his glass to the health of the visiting dignitaries!

On Nepal, the DC could really take up the matter of restoring democracy in Nepal (something we strongly support), while the GOI could address the pragmatic issues raised by The Acorn .

Let the GOI be as pragmatic as it needs to be, but at least we'd have a voluntary mechanism for Indians to express their -- statutorily protected -- moral contempt for some of the tyrants we are forced to do business with. Won't that be a great way to vocalize our moral view without sacrificing our pragmatic interests?

No comments: