Realpolitik is shorthand for the law of the jungleIt’s the production of social homogeneity that makes neo-nationalism a dangerous policy.
Girija Prasad Koirala was perhaps the only Nepali head of government who once explored the possibility of transforming the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) into a forum for discussing the bilateral relations of member countries, albeit in an indirect and subtle manner. Prefacing his response with the disarming Hindi idiom ‘chhoti mooh, badi baat’, literally meaning ‘small mouth, big talk’, the then-premier Koirala had managed to weave India-Pakistan relations, peace in South Asia and the future of SAARC together in a question-answer session with Riz Khan of CNN.
Ever since India refused to attend the 2016 SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad, the regional grouping has remained more or less in suspended animation. It’s extremely unlikely that the issue will figure even on the sidelines during the whistle-stop tour of Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar. Every powerful country has certain private obsessions. Indians have their own bugbears. India has the second-largest population of Muslims in the world. Their condition, however, has worsened since the Sachar Committee reported in 2006 that they fared worse than Dalits in the political economy of the largest democracy of the world. A spurt in public lynching targeting Muslims has made their fate even more precarious.
The moment one mentions the disputed status of Kashmir, the Instrument of Accession that Maharaja Hari Singh signed in 1947 enters the conversation. Among scores of Maharajas that joined the Indian Union after its independence, none is as widely discussed as one of the few Hindu rulers of the Muslim-majority state.
Dressed in emblematic saffron of Hindutva, rightwing stormy petrel Pragya Singh Thakur said that the killer of Mahatma Gandhi ‘was, is and will remain a patriot’ before being elected to Parliament. After becoming a member of the Indian parliament, she went on to term the first prime minister of her country a criminal. An icon of non-violence and peace almost everywhere except in his own country, the Mahatma is slowly being eclipsed by his devoted acolyte and fellow Gujarati Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who has been idolised with the tallest statue in the world.
On the face of it, there is nothing new in the decision of the Indian government to scrap the special status given to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to do so in its election manifesto. The pronouncement may have been unconstitutional and immoral as is being argued by prominent experts, but it enjoys considerable public support across party lines.
The mainstream media in India has long been known ‘to crawl when asked to bend’. Perhaps that’s the reason Donald Trump, Jr called the Indian media ‘so mild and nice’. Ever since the triumphant march of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Indian politics, the ‘godi media’ has been slithering all over the place. Honourable exceptions apart, commentators bite their lips before speaking up in the Indian media on Kashmir. Meanwhile, learned writers and fiery critics have gone to the international press to vent their frustrations.
Writer Arundhati Roy and historian Ramachandra Guha don’t see eye to eye on most issues. They publicly spar and openly disparage each other. Roy is some kind of a post-Marxist activist who successfully mixes quest for autonomy, politics of dignity, environmentalism and Maoism in heady tracts. Guha is a classic liberal with a slightly progressive bent and expresses himself prodigiously in ‘propah’ language. What is unquestionable is that they are among some of the best writers in contemporary English. Both of them took to the international press to express their anger. Roy heard the deafening silence of an entire state put in confinement. Guha lamented about the decline of democracy in his country.
When much of the media was obsessed with what, how, when and ‘now what’ questions, Suhasini Haidar tried to answer the ‘why’ of the Kashmir conundrum with her ‘Modi’s vivendi’ formulation. Realpolitik is the reason most of the world has chosen to maintain a meaningful silence over an issue that would have rattled everyone until a few decades ago.
When sociologist Daniel Bell declared the ‘End of Ideology’ with an eponymous volume of essays, what he perhaps had in mind was the beginning of doubts in place of devotion to ‘secular religions’ of the time. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History?’ had imagined that questions of political identities had been resolved. In reality, pragmatism triumphed over idealism in the 1960s, and national self-interest trumped internationalism in the 1990s. That leaves political realism as the sole mode of practice.
In summarising her complex piece, Suhasini Haidar tweeted, ‘Like demonetisation, PM's Kashmir move is driven by populism, that startles opponents, thrills supporters, and works on the Realpolitik principle, where the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.’ In that one sentence, she has succeeded in encapsulating the essence of neo-nationalism. Neo-nationalists peddle populism in the name of democracy at home and hide behind the veil of sovereignty to defend their domestic policies. Economic policies are geared to serve the interests of the few rather than the many. However, it’s the production of social homogeneity that makes neo-nationalism a dangerous policy.
The Chinese are running what they call ‘re-education’ camps for minorities, and want to dilute the ‘one country, two system’ governance in Hong Kong. Trump supporters want that wall. Brexiters are readying for no-deal laws. On the foreign policy front, realpolitik is shorthand for the law of the jungle. On an issue involving peace and stability of South Asia, the circumspection of Minister of Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali is understandable. Standing against India has very high risks. However, there is no reason for Nepal to unconditionally support New Delhi’s political adventures in Kashmir.
If there is one phrase of realpolitik that helps the weak maintain its dignity it is this: Discretion is the better part of valour. Having been chastened once, the honoured guest from New Delhi is unlikely to hard-sell his position once again.
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