The Indian government’s handling of the issue of visas to Chinese “activists” like Dolkun Isa, Ray Wong and Lu Jinghua has shown our systems and strategy in poor light. Let us for a moment accept the ministry of external affairs’ (MEA’s) explanation that there was a sound technical basis for revoking the visas of these individuals. But visa policy and practice are seldom only about technicalities. The way in which we have invoked the technicality argument has actually exposed the brittleness of our system.
Consider the most prosaic matter first. In this day and age, with investments in databases and surveillance, it boggles the mind that the Indian government discovered whom it was granting the visa to, what political baggage they might be carrying, after the fact. If Interpol notices are flagged in our systems after the visa has been granted, we come out looking as either administratively incompetent or dissimulating.
This is particularly true in a system of visa granting, where the scrutiny of Chinese or Pakistani applicants is supposedly incredibly labyrinthine and complicated. If these systems allow such apparently easy slip-ups between the ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the MEA, as is being claimed, one wonders what the backend of our process is like, especially when the frontend has been made so complicated. The first rule of exercising power in the international system is that your knowledge bases must prevent you from making repeated mistakes in the first place; cleaning up messes is symbolically and politically more costly. No wonder, few are willing to take the Indian government at its word.
Second, our visa framework has been a standing testament to our lack of confidence in our liberal democracy. It is no secret that getting conference visas is onerous. It is also no secret that our own government officials used to be frustrated by the government’s capriciousness in processing conference visas, and would advise applicants to get tourist visas. Perhaps it is a good thing that we are moving away from this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevailed. But for a liberal democracy, we should be ashamed of our suspicion of anything to do with ideas. Consultants, people who move around money, lobbyists, arms traders, corporate business, and tourists who keep their mouth shut, do not go through the kind of scrutiny that people coming to “conferences” do.
The scandal is that Indian institutions are still required to take permission from the MHA for conferences: It is as if anyone who deals with ideas is inherently the object of suspicion more than anyone who deals with money. Admittedly, a few people who get in might have nutty ideas. But we should have enough confidence that open countervailing arguments will defeat them. But our process of conference visas itself often costs us the goodwill of many in the world of ideas who are India’s real friends. But most importantly, the very technicality the MEA is rightly invoking, the distinction between how tourists and businessmen are treated and how those who trade in ideas are treated, exposes our paranoia. This paranoia was enshrined by the Congress and continues to this day, despite the fact that on issues like electronic visas, this government has taken welcome steps.
Third, and most importantly, this episode has exposed the lack of a framework in our visa regime. Of course, sometimes countries have to respond to circumstances, and granting visas can be an instrument of international diplomacy. But behind it, there needs to be a framework of principles that guides our policy; you cannot be entirely transactional and have credibility. Whatever the technical explanations given by the government, the fact is that we framed a political narrative around a new-formed machismo: We can stand up to China. The government sought to politically insinuate this at any rate. But it does look like we ate humble pie. If we are being honest, we have to admit that dealing with China is not going to be easy on a number of issues where our values clash.
But more seriously, what does standing up to China actually mean? Does it mean giving a visa to someone whom the Chinese might not like? Or should it mean standing up for the values that should set us apart from China: A lack of fear in the space of ideas, openness to dissidents, and so forth. We already lost the plot by defining “standing up to China” in the former manner. The problem with short-term machismo realism is that it fails to understand the foundations of long-term power.
Of course, we regulate the entry of people on various watchlists, or those who might pose clear and imminent danger, and so forth. But is it a healthy policy for a liberal democracy to deny people visas for research they might do or ideas they might have? How much more respect and credibility we would gain if we said we do not target people for their political positions. The sad fact is that we do, and this is what the world will take away from this episode. The irony is that we come across as trying to compete with China by being China. Surely that is not a winning strategy for India.
Finally, if we are prepared to signal playing the short-term tough-love game with China, we better be fully prepared for it. First, if there is a change of course, have you thought through as many contingencies as possible before acting? Second, governments have still not understood the need for putting out credible and authoritative narratives of what they are up to. The public perception is that, particularly with our neighbours, we now oscillate from gestures of reconciliation, and then when rebuffed, feel the need to show knee-jerk resistance. This might be unfair to the MEA but it is hard to shake off the perception that our diplomacy is focused more on being tactical, on being seen to do things, than on the larger framework. Perhaps there is a secret understanding this fiasco has produced. But then the problem with trying to keep too many secrets is that you will always end up looking a bit too clever by half. That is how we come across. But finally, in dealing with China, the issue is not just how we deal with their power. It is also whether we know what we stand for. It is not clear that we do.