Blinken (verb): to assiduously and tactfully refuse to be drawn into controversy; to maintain pivotal, cordial relationships, notwithstanding a cacophony of patently instigated noises, and, thereby, render those noises irrelevant.
The recent visit to India by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, cemented the robust and time-tested relations between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. On the agenda for urgent discussion: Covid-19, Afghanistan, the Quad, and a raft of other pressing matters that could brook no delay. In the wake of this visit, and, in particular, the press conference that he and India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, held at the conclusion of their talks, there was a flurry of articles trying to gloss over the fact that Blinken categorically — and graciously, in deference to accepted diplomatic protocol — refused to be drawn into any kind of commentary on India’s internal affairs. These articles epitomise a refusal to accept what is true. If only he had cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war! We might work ourselves into a lather all we want, and read dozens of meanings into his statements on both democracies, but the truth is that Blinken assiduously avoided being judgemental about India, saying that he approached India with a sense of “humility”. He alluded to our democracies as “works in progress” and offered up tangible praise for India as a democracy. I, therefore, name this sage diplomatic strategy the art of Blinkening, infused with fresh meaning and depth as it has been, by Antony Blinken. There is just too much at stake in this crucial relationship to let self-righteousness taint it. It takes a large dollop of naïveté to assume that any leader is simply going to jump into an arena now populated by activists and belligerent mediapersons, and, thereby, jeopardise important bilateral relations. The real world does not work that way. The very act of requesting another nation to interfere in India’s internal affairs is both immature and treacherous, and epitomises our colonial hangover.
Calling the US-India relationship “one of the most consequential relationships we have with any country on earth,” Blinken added: “Finally, our bilateral relationship is strengthened by our shared values. As two of the world’s leading democracies, we take seriously our responsibilities to deliver freedom, equality and opportunity to all of our people … Part of the promise of democracy is the constant striving for better. Those values are at the heart of our democratic systems. They’re at the core of the vast array of partnerships connecting our countries, not only between our governments but also between our private sectors, universities, civil societies, and most of all between our people.” As someone whose professional and personal investment in, and connection with, North America dates back to 1980, and whose areas of specialisation are cross-cultural communication, international relations, and public policy, I believe I have a reasonably accurate take on exactly what Blinken meant. He was not fudging around; what he said, with discernible eloquence, came from the heart.
In the above context, a couple of comments in the media need responses: One Indian journalist thinks Blinken “waffled painfully, trying his best to say nothing when asked about the Modi government’s democratic backsliding. But Dr S Jaishankar leapt in, right after, to reveal the three issues the US raised with India.” This is inaccurate, and sheer fabrication: I watched the press conference live. Blinken chose to reply first, to Courtney McBride of The Wall Street Journal, when she asked him about his perception of India as a democracy, and here is an excerpt from what he said: “I’m happy to start … The most remarkable democratic elections in the world, in many ways, are here in India, just by sheer numbers. It’s the largest expression of free political will by citizens anywhere on earth … And we celebrate that the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies are dedicated at heart to a shared set of values that I believe will ensure not only the success of democracy, but the success of the relationship between India and the United States.” Now, for someone who was trying to say nothing, Blinken said rather a lot, and there wasn’t the slightest trace of a waffle or discomfiture in his response.
All those manufactured and spurious correlations, the hectoring and the cotton candy cozenage — they were all astutely banished. “Blinkened”, if you will. Blinken complimented India as a strong and resilient democracy, on more than one occasion, and with elegance. India now looks forward to President Biden’s visit.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘The art of Blinkening’. The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. Views are personal.
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