External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj deserves not a little credit for declining to surf the wave of hyper-nationalism on the China-India face-off on the Doklam plateau. In the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, she made a powerful case for dialogue, arguing that China had “contributed to our growing economic strength”. China, she went on, “is one of the leading countries among [India’s] major contributors and economic partners”. Though words like these might be unfashionable in a climate where bluster often masquerades as strategy, they show that introspection is alive at the highest levels of decision-making. China and India cannot afford to allow their relationship to be hijacked by spurious prestige issues, as it was in the build-up to the 1962 war. This is not only because the well-being of their billions of impoverished citizens depends on peace.
As Asia’s pre-eminent powers, along with Russia, China and India have a shared responsibility to help shape a security architecture for a continent in the throes of profound transformation. Their inability to manage a dispute over a pass in the inner Himalayas does not inspire confidence that Beijing and New Delhi will be able to address the far more complex conflicts over hydrocarbons, water and wealth that will mark this coming century. Swaraj’s speech will not have won her any fans among the NDA’s more raucous supporters. It has, however, gone a long way in demonstrating that India’s leadership is preparing to deal with a fraught and dangerous world.
The Rajya Sabha debate — and Swaraj’s own words — also give reason, however, for less optimistic appraisals of the state of India’s foreign policy-making. Following Swaraj’s speech, the Congress sought to pin blame on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for leaving the borders with China open, while she hit back by claiming that although Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru “built and enhanced his personal image, Prime Minister Modi is enhancing the entire country’s image through his initiatives”. Both accusations, as those making them likely know, have elements of hyperbole. Crisis with China regularly erupted through Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government; whatever his failings might have been, Prime Minister Nehru’s nationalism was irreproachable. Instead of a serious discussion on the challenges India is likely to face in a transforming world, the debate degenerated into name-calling. Foreign policy needs a core of political consensus over India’s interests, and how to secure them. The debate has given little reason to believe India’s representatives will not let themselves be diverted from the task of forging one.