The Dangers Of Having An Idle Foreign Minister

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Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj courted controversy on Sunday when she urged that the Bhagavad Gita be proclaimed the rashtriya granth – National Holy Book – by the Government of India. Swaraj was speaking at the Gita Prerna Mahotsav, organised by the Global Inspiration and Enlightenment Organization of Gita and held at the Red Fort Maidan.

There can be little doubt even among neophyte observers of Indian politics that the external affairs minister was deliberately seeking headlines. And she succeeded – as expected, an avalanche of words have been launched at Swaraj by the opposition as well as the media on social networks as well as in print and on television.

Several issues arise on the external affairs minister’s comments. First, India is technically a secular country and that means the law of the land cannot allow a book holy to one religion be accorded a place of prominence over others. Of course, there have been strong critiques of secularism and no principle is so sacrosanct that it cannot be revisited. If the Bharatiya Janata Party wished to seriously pursue this matter, the proper manner in which to do it would be to establish an internal committee of legal, political, and philosophical experts who would then propose a plan of action to the BJP. It does not seem that Swaraj was announcing the formation of any such venture but merely making an attention-seeking soundbyte.

Second, it is unclear how the creation of a rashtriya granth falls within the purview of the External Affairs Ministry. There are several ministries that might take up this task but external affairs is not one of them. Admittedly, the making of foreign policy has shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office under this government but there remains enormous tasks for the external affairs minister yet. There is no need for Swaraj to be idle just yet.

Following the prime minister’s agenda, the ministry has to establish trade missions with several countries in Southeast and East Asia. These missions would facilitate trade relations between their respective states and India so everything need not be kicked up to Delhi. The ministry can also prepare to take nuclear negotiations forward with several states in the region such as Australia and Japan; furthermore, it can assist in actualising agreements that have already been made but are stuck in India’s infamous bureaucratic red tape. More immediately, there are 39 Indians lost in Iraq that Swaraj can use the assets of the ministry to locate and bring home. The ministry also has to prepare for the visit by the Russian premier, Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama next month. Both countries are important to India’s interests and it is essential that South Block be ready with proposals and counter proposals to move India’s relations with the two powers ahead.

If Swaraj really wants to leave her imprint on the external affairs ministry, she can revamp and expand the entire office. It is common knowledge that South Block is woefully understaffed and Swaraj can work to amend hiring policies so that India is not always found wanting in subject matter experts.

It might be argued that the minister was not speaking in official capacity at the Mahotsav. That is a naïve view, for any minister’s appearance at a public gathering can hardly be called private or unofficial…especially when a statement with legal implications is made. It is hard to believe that Swaraj could not find anything to say in praise of the Gita without seeming out of her depth.

One might also ask what the purpose of according the Gita the status of a national holy book is. Upon reflection, it would seem that many things are made national symbols only to be rendered impotent and disregarded. For example, the national Saka calendar is used more in religious observances than in matters of state function. More corruption has occurred under the words, Satyameva Jayate, than before it took its lofty position on the Indian national emblem. The Bengal tiger was made a national animal and yet little effort was expended in preventing its poaching; it is now an endangered species. It is difficult to fathom why India needs a national animal, bird, as well as an aquatic animal. The Ganga is India’s national river and yet it is one of the filthiest rivers in the world. It is surprising more Hindus are not offended by Swaraj’s call to place the Gita in this dubious company.

Finally, it appears that Swaraj has not yet received the memo from the prime minister that he wants doers, not talkers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed people like Suresh Prabhu and Manohar Parrikar in important positions in his government, both of whom have a reputation for getting things done. If this is a sign of changes to come in the BJP, Swaraj is very much on the wrong foot. In any case, the Honourable Minister should perhaps heed the advice of the book she loves so much:

śreyān svadharmo viguṇaḥ paradharmāt svanuṣṭhitāt |
svadharme nidhanaṃ śreyaḥ paradharmo bhayāvahaḥ || 3.35


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on December 08, 2014.