It is difficult not to conclude that the Indian establishment is overreacting to concerns voiced overseas on the right of its farmers to protest laws they deem unfair.
The decision by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to skip a meeting of global foreign ministers called by his Canadian counterpart to craft a unified response to the coronavirus epidemic a month after he had seemed to heartily welcome the initiative, was clearly provoked by remarks of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that India deems ill-informed and unwarranted.
The External Affairs ministry has cited scheduling issues as the reason for Mr Jaishankar’s decision, which if true would suggest the Minister maintains a messy diary for on 3 November, he had tweeted he would be “pleased to participate”.
While indignation and even anger may be justified, the response paints India into a corner for it suggests two things. First, that South Block accords a lower priority to a global response to Covid than it does to undiplomatic comments.
Second, it creates a template that India will be forced to follow should other leaders voice similar concerns.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has also expressed concern at the matter; will India now petulantly boycott the General Assembly?
While Mr. Trudeau’s remarks were provoked by the presence in the Canadian ruling coalition of persons of Indian descent, and thus were targeted more at a domestic audience than they were at India, the days ahead might see other expressions of support for democratic protest. Already, the Indian diaspora which had been assiduously wooed by the establishment in New Delhi over the past six years, has expressed concern about the farmers’ cause, including through a well attended demonstration in London over the weekend.
These expressions of support must be countered rationally and with the arguments that the establishment proffers in support of its decision, not with the standoffishness it has displayed so far, including in largely ignoring the protests until they reached Delhi a few days ago. It is unfortunate that the issue was allowed to fester for so many months. Even if farmers were misguided as the government stubbornly maintains, their concerns merited attention.
Instead, they were first ignored and then officiously dismissed, the task of dealing with them initially left to faceless bureaucrats who were told to hold firm.
Now, with the movement having gathered such momentum that it threatens to hamper daily life, the government wants to suggest that it is backpedalling furiously when in fact it is refusing to budge more than an inch or two.
With the economy in some distress because of the epidemic, and with Opposition parties ~ belatedly it must be said – sensing an opportunity, it will take either considerable skill or capitulation to defuse the situation. Having antagonised a significant section of its own people, the Government should be careful not to open flanks overseas. The United States under President Trump or China under President Xi can cock a snook at the world. Can India?