In a democracy, interplay between foreign policy and domestic politics, is especially unavoidable. Sometimes, a US President like Donald Trump may ignore the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the brutal killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while ratcheting up relations with Saudi Arabia. Similarly, in India, Trump attended a banquet at the Rashtrapati Bhawan before departure, when episodic Delhi rioting had begun, but ignored it. Democratic US presidents have often displayed more interest in democracy and human rights.
Thus, unsurprisingly during the recent India visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, The Wall Street Journal correspondent asked how the US proposed to reconcile desire for a democratic order in the Indo-Pacific and India’s slippage as a liberal democracy. Ironically, like Trump, as Secretary Blinken stood answering that question, the Indian Parliament had faced over ten days of stalling over the government refusing to order an enquiry into credible charges of having used military grade malware Pegasus to spy on journalists, judges, holders of constitutional offices etc. This comes on top of farmers having been protesting since November 2020, over the three contentious farm laws.
India revisits Iranian ties
While domestic politics has been on the boil since the BJP’s rout in West Bengal election, India’s external environment has also mutated. Besides Chinese intrusions in Ladakh, the quick exit by the US military from Afghanistan has left a vacuum which the Taliban is exploiting, using its talk-and-fight strategy. Secretary Blinken commiserated without outlining a US strategy to thwart the armed push by Taliban-Pakistan axis. This is forcing India to rapidly recalibrate its relations with Iran, which India had kept at an arm’s length while China increased its strategic hold there.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, seen as the votary of a pro-US line, is in Tehran for the swearing-in of the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who has won a seriously tainted election. To have any kind of security role to play in Afghanistan, India needs Iran for access and intelligence.
But the Iranians are known to nurse past snubs, while being equally adept at dissimulation to advance their interests. It is a different Iran today from the one India engaged with in the 1990s, to counter the rise of Taliban and other pro-Pakistan groups. Iran no doubt remembers that India largely complied with US urgings to distance itself from Iran since 2003, when the latter’s clandestine nuclear programme was revealed.
Equally, they will recall the excessive public friendliness between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, the latter being the de facto president of United Arab Emirates. Iran’s primary interest now is to retain influence to its west, on a Shia-majority Iraq and a Shia-run Syria, besides the Hezbollah in Lebanon and sundry Palestinian groups.
It would also like its nuclear deal with the US to be restored and sanctions lifted. It has kept communications and even cooperation open with the Taliban. It will therefore, protect Shia interests in Afghanistan without open hostility. Thus, India’s passageway to Afghanistan via Iran may be available on strict conditions.
Therefore, the US withdrawal from India’s near west and the resultant vacuum has enabled the rise of forces traditionally aligned with the Pakistan-China axis. What are India’s options? One, peace at home should be a high priority, including the ending of farmers’ protests, the calibrated reversal of transitional arrangements in Jammu and Kashmir and the acceptance of the opposition demand for an enquiry into Pegasus.
Denial on the use of Pegasus is unconvincing, especially when even Israel is enquiring into it. Presently, only 150-odd Indian numbers, out of 1,000 have been identified. The Economist, writing on the controversy, concludes that the government accepting greater oversight over intelligence officials “seems as fanciful as to dream of winged horses”. The nation’s dream may just be delivered as the government’s domestic nightmare deepens.
The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs
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