President Roosevelt's foreign policy dictum, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" has found new followers in New Delhi. Whether they carry a big stick or not, they speak softly to the point of appearing to be not speaking at all. This is a departure from the past. Even in the old days, when there was a consensus on foreign policy and South Block had the monopoly over foreign policy making, the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers or their spokespersons explained every important decision to the people, sometimes bluntly conveying a message of firmness and continuity in policies. To their foreign interlocutors, Indian negotiators were often forthright and then they made it known to the public, thus gaining general acceptance of the tough positions they took. Indian positions were always "principled" or were made to appear so by the spokespersons. Rarely did the public challenge the positions set forth by the Government.
The trend today to conceal more than reveal the substance of important negotiations and conversations may be dictated by the fact that the international situation is in a state of flux and we need to hedge issues to keep our options open. Many of our postures cannot be characterized as principled any more. The communication revolution has also made it difficult to "lie abroad" or even lie about what happens abroad. This may explain the present restraint and reticence. The Prime Minister himself has set the tone and it is followed down the line. Demands for explanations on foreign policy have also dwindled because of the prominence that domestic issues have attained in a pre-election year.
One aspect of speaking softly is playing down of tricky situations and issues in public. The most eloquent example of the strategy was the characterization of the Chinese incursion into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control as an acne, which could be treated with a little ointment, or words to that effect. This had no credibility because it was well known that the Chinese had penetrated deep into our territory and were setting conditions of good behavior for us in our own land. But it came as music to the ears of of the pro-China lobby and those who did not want trouble with China. The sharp criticism against the Chinese action in other quarters was blunted by the official position. As a result, the solution of the issue, when it came, appeared effortless and the details of the concessions, if any, made by India were not fully revealed, not even demanded. The truth of the settlement terms still remain in mystery.Bewildered strategic analysts raised questions, but they remained unanswered.
The meeting of the special representatives on the India-China border and the visit of the Defence Minister to China seem to have gone well, but there again, economy in words was the law. An incident on June 17, in which Chinese soldiers took away cameras from an Indian post was totally hushed up so as not to vitiate the atmosphere of the two visits. On the eve of the Defence Minister's visit, a Chinese General wrote: "The Indian side should not provoke new problems and increase military deployment in the border areas and stir up new trouble". No Indian reaction to this untimely admonition was seen. Instead, the overwhelming sense conveyed after the two visits was that Sino-Indian relations were on the upswing and that the border issue would be resolved sooner than later. The reported progress on an agreement to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border, nothing but old wine in new bottle, gave the impression that there would be rapid movement towards a settlement of the border itself. The Defence Minister was at his characteristic best in reporting progress without details. Progress there may well have been, but speaking softly on all these issues is likely to boomerang if the Chinese were to embark on their teaching lessons policy once again. A reality check on Sino-Indian relations appears imperative and this cannot be accomplished without more openness on the part of our foreign policy establishment.
The India-US Strategic dialogue, by all accounts, accomplished little, but the new policy of reticence did not permit even a whimper of disappointment. Both sides said in private that the dialogue made no difference to the relationship, which had reached a plateau, with no prospects for breaking news. Even the revelation that India was the fifth most watched nation by the US intelligence did not make any waves during the visit of the Secretary of State, John Kerry. Those who had anticipated that such a serious breach of faith involving the direct surveillance of the Indian Embassy in Washington would lead to a strong protest on the part of India were disappointed. Whatever may have happened within closed doors, the public Indian pronouncement on the issue virtually condoned the incident as nothing out of the ordinary. "This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being sent.....it is not actually snooping on the content of anyone's messages or conversations", said the Indian Minister of External Affairs, echoing the words of his American counterpart. Against the backdrop of cyber surveillance and cyber attacks assuming dangerous proportions, the softness of the Indian position was shocking. In the wide world, the US is seen to be as guilty as China in violating the rights of its own people and other nations. A sympathetic response from a democratic nation like India was a windfall for the United States. Turning down of the asylum request of Edward Snowden was appropriate. It was obviously a circular request sent to all democracies. But in the present atmosphere of reticence, no elaborate explanation was given of the action.
The danger of speaking softly and playing down actual events can help create an atmosphere conducive to patient diplomacy away from the glare of publicity. It also enables the Government to pursue various options without pressure from public opinion. But the gap between perception and reality will widen in the process and the possibility of grave disillusionment will increase. Facts emanating from other sources may also embarrass the Government if the truth is not told. If speaking softly becomes a habit without the accompanying big stick, it may be seen as weakness. At a time of shifting power equations, tough positions arising out of strong convictions may be of greater advantage.