De Tocqueville foresaw the problem with conducting foreign affairs early: “A democracy can only with difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, work it out despite serious obstacles. It cannot combine measures with secrecy or await outcomes with patience.” To these inherent handicaps, we in India add the defects debasing democracy at home. The immature and uncomprehending squabbling, the obsession with selfish and trivial aims, the rejection of reasoned discussion and, most appallingly, of national interest. The habitual hubbub over our home minister’s perfectly justified participation in a SAARC meeting is another illustration.
Accusing governments — not just this one — of confusion regarding Pakistan is a favourite ploy, alas not unjustifiably. Unfortunately, we as a people have never been able to make up our minds on how to deal with Pakistan. Not that we have lacked advocates of strong positions; from “smashing” our neighbour to being nice to them. These are attitudes, not policies, and ignore capacity: Not equipped to “smash” it, we can never afford to give Pakistan what it craves. So, what precisely can India do?
Effective answers demand objective, wholly dispassionate assessments of intentions and capabilities, which we simply seem unable to apply to Pakistan (or China). Musharraf was right. Pakistan would remain hostile even if Kashmir were solved and in any case his army would not let him solve it. Granting our peaceniks’ belief that the people of Pakistan really love us, and long for friendship, is there the slightest evidence that their goodwill has the slightest effect on Pakistan’s real power-wielders? Invasion, promoting separatists, not only in “disputed” J&K, but in our Punjab and in the Northeast, breaking every rule to build nuclear weapons, and now unbridled terrorism: The evidence that they will stop at nothing to put us down is glaring, but there are none so blind as those who refuse to see.
No responsible government can avoid the working assumption that Pakistan is a hostile power. It doesn’t mean war tomorrow, or ever, but it imposes the imperative to being able to deter, limit or win one. How much ever greater our present or growing military strength, we simply fail to develop the totality of required capabilities — especially efficient instruments of state.
That is our biggest problem: How to reinstate the efficiency that is essential for national security? The messy pressures of politics plus a dysfunctional state apparatus practically invite interference. Pakistani policymakers cannot but see us full of vulnerabilities. Particularly in J&K, they must feel tempted to keep exploiting our follies. Pakistan and China also cannot ignore the state of our politics. Can any Indian government be expected to obtain follow-through support for any compromises in J&K or our China border? Certainly, we have a hugely difficult problem; and some problems are simply beyond a solution — England had to live with the Irish question for centuries. When existing circumstances preclude solutions, it is surely your prime task to work for better circumstances, or gear yourself to contain challenges. Instead, every government in Delhi has made things worse.
For decades, every government has nonchalantly alienated Kashmiris. It passes all understanding how so sensitive, pressing and vital a matter can be dealt with so cavalierly. This too, thanks to political bickering — in J&K and Delhi — as well as ham-handedness by instruments of state. But lately, the deteriorating communal atmosphere across the country has aggravated our difficulties. Partition resulted from widespread Muslim fears about their position under Hindu rule, and the majority’s refusal to acknowledge those fears. If the present ruling dispensation also refuses to see that it has allowed, if not engendered, a steep rise of such fears, we are heading for huge trouble.
Our unique nationhood is so far held together by an equally unique success in keeping democracy going. It depends on an emollient ethos and a leadership from all constituent groups that is committed to a cohesive purpose transcending group interest or ambitions, a determination to find common ground and to making things work. Combine the decline in such leadership with an administrative apparatus sinking continuously into incompetence and venality, and you lose all possibility of sustaining society, leave alone coping with external dangers. The greatest defence against external forces is the respect you command. Nobody seems even aware of that word.
If our ways of attending to our affairs cannot but make Pakistan see opportunities, the best answer is to make ourselves a state so efficient that such opportunities cease to exist. Here, if nowhere else, our politicians must grow out of shoddy one-upmanship and cooperate in making us capable of facing dangers, both manifest and latent. They should have, if not a commitment to the nation to do right, at least enough sense to realise that foreign policy will not win or lose elections. Even Pakistan does not impinge enough to make a difference. Urging what should or must be done seems futile when those addressed won’t listen. One can only bear witness.
But more than foreign policy, democracy’s innate drawback is the power of irrational, ultimately self-destructive, mass urges and prejudices to determine decisions. That is no reason to deride, much less discard democracy. Authoritarianism, so facilely tempting as providing better results, has many more mistakes and evils to answer for. Moreover, nowadays governments everywhere find their institutions and mechanisms inadequate to handling the complexities of modern challenges. The bigotry, divisiveness and even violence — all the ugliest forces that can threaten a democracy — are today shaking its oldest and for long its most enviable exemplar. Popular disgust with government remoteness and non-performance threatens not just America. Its still immense power, means the whole world would suffer from its possible, disturbingly irresponsible leadership, even though the majority would not want it. Don’t imagine it cannot happen here.
We, as a nation, seem oblivious to pervasive, highly volatile dangers. Repeated inflictions of horror fail to awake us. What would happen in and to our country if multiple attacks like those in Mumbai occurred in quick succession? Consider the panic of an excitable, undisciplined people, compounded by the unpreparedness, inadequacy and sheer clumsiness of our state apparatus. What of social tensions and the damage to democracy?
These are not apocalyptic nightmares but likely possibilities. Here too anger and frustration can feed demagogic assaults on democracy. Every country is vulnerable to terror. None knows when it may strike, none has developed immunity. France’s subjections have produced no answers, only the churning of a great tradition. Imagine what would happen here. We just cannot carry on like this.