A changing world and a lost opportunity for India (Comment)

International behaviour is no longer predictable. Take for instance America; once it was the land of the free. For close to a hundred years its torch beckoned the needy and the persecuted to its welcoming fold. Remember the East-West era and its plate full of acrimonies?

All that sounds so distant, even unnecessary, now. After all, the same West, with all its vanities, is cohabiting with an officially commie China.

But from the 1950s up to the late 1980s, the East was the villain; its ideology flawed and its regimes evil. Therefore, its people had to be saved. The greatest attraction pulling people towards the West was the possibility to live life as they chose. In the East, they had to look over their shoulders all the time; the big brother was omnipresent and ever watchful. The West was the Promised Land and defections were a one-way street. People didn’t flee the West to settle in communist-controlled spaces.

Since then, the world has changed. East and West are no longer two separate blocs. They may not be equally prosperous; there may still not be all the freedom one might want in Eastern Europe. But people no longer defect. They migrate.

Defections, when they happen, take place differently now. What seemed unthinkable once is happening. Today, people leave the West to defend freedoms – of information!

It started with Julian Assange and his Wikileaks. People were curious about the information that he felt must be brought out in public domain, but the interest was limited to the specialist. The world got truly excited when Bradley Manning transferred thousands of State Department communications to Wikileaks. There was a virtual electronic mine for people to trawl through. For once, the governments of the world were exposed to unlimited public scrutiny.

Manning was caught and is imprisoned in the US. But Assange stayed one step ahead and managed to get diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It is remarkable that one of the smallest countries in the world, and a country which is not really the greatest defender of the freedom of expression, decided to stand up to the mightiest power in the world.

They were both sensational cases. But had it been limited to these two, the world would have forgotten about them as aberrations and temporary diversions. In fact the world was settling down to dull routine when the case of Edward Snowden happened. It is explosive, to say the least. It is also amazingly complex in its ramifications as people’s privacy is being violated with impunity. To give an idea of its scale: If Manning’s disclosures were about classified documents, Snowden’s are about the Top Secret. No wonder the American establishment has hit the panic button.

There are two interesting aspects here. First, a country that prided in guaranteeing the freedom of expression is now recording and analysing every spoken and written word, not just of its citizens but that of people world-wide. It is also indulging in intrusive surveillance against other countries. America’s domestic laws might protect its people, but is there an international law that protects the non-American citizens? Ironically, America once gave refuge to East Europeans because the Big Brother there was watching their every move. Now that America is itself the Big Brother, where should the citizens of the world escape to?

The second dimension of this issue is the reverse flow. From attracting conscientious objectors America is now emitting them to other countries.

There is one difference, though. The pull for the citizens of East Europe to the West was for ideological and economic reasons. The reverse flow, a miniscule trickle yet, from the US is for ideological reasons.

The fact is that the world is changing. However, the US finds it difficult to adjust to this new reality. It wants to hold on to its privileged domineering position; and it wants the global enterprise to continue to function in a manner that ensures America’s primacy.

Since the world is still in awe of its presumed power, and as China wants to enjoy the privileges without assuming responsibilities, the US may continue to dominate the world and its affairs for some time. But events like that of Snowden point to a slide and a dent in its image. A reduced America will eventually have to concede and share power with others.

China is certainly going to figure prominently in that list of others. It is already America’s equal in many respects; in fact the world has got used to calling the meetings between the leaders of the two countries as G-2. But to be a truly great power, China will have to show the ability to stand up to America. By asking Snowden to leave Hongkong, it hasn’t shown that will. In fact, future defectors will consider the fate of Snowden before choosing either China or Russia as their destination.

India was quick to show the red flag to Snowden over his request for asylum. This was obviously in deference to the US.

But did the US show the same consideration to our concerns when RAW officer Rabinder Singh was whisked away by the CIA to America? After all, he had passed on our national secrets. Nor has the US been particularly helpful to Indian requests concerning David Coleman Headley (who reconnoitered Mumbai ahead of the 26/11 attack).

How would Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi have reacted in a similar situation, when the chips are down domestically but there is an opportunity on the global stage? It is true that the Nehruvian postures of anti-colonialism, anti-racism and non-alignment were so many negatives designed to blunt the prevailing negatives. But they caught the international imagination and got India a special place in the hearts of the people of the developing world. It got India the moral leadership at least.

Indira Gandhi used her tirades against the CIA as a domestic political opportunity and to put the US on the back-foot. What are we doing now to protect our citizen’s privacy and to promote our case in that list of others? There is no discernible game plan yet, but one thing is clear: Nations that aim for greatness do not look over their shoulders all the time.

(04.07.2013 – Rajiv Dogra is a former ambassador. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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