Under S.M. Krishna, the external affairs ministry appeared content to bob along with the headlines. Last year, when Norway’s Child Protection Services wanted to place the two young Bhattacharya children in foster care, Indian television channels, activists and political leaders made it a prime-time national drama — of the Norwegian state imposing its alien standards on our warm, imperfect parenting methods. Suddenly, the question of whether the Bhattacharyas abided by the law in the country of their choosing became an occasion for India to deplore cultural belittling abroad. And in response, the external affairs ministry sent a special envoy to Norway, warning them that these children were “neither orphaned nor stateless”, spent months negotiating their return, only to be embarrassed when the private life of the Bhattacharyas turned out to be more complicated than they had bargained for. The Indian government ended up looking like an awkward participant in a family saga with shifting testimonies and volleys of recrimination. What’s worse, at the time that the foreign ministry was passionately arguing that Norwegian norms were secondary to ours, it was busy presenting the opposing argument to Italy, over whether its marines could be tried for the killing of Indian fishermen in international waters. That bluster with Norway looked silly then. In retrospect, it looks even sillier.
The point is not that the state should not look out for its overseas citizens. But when should the affairs of an individual become a matter between sovereign nations? By electing to live in a certain country, they are subject to the rules that govern it. The MEA can argue the case of those who are systematically exploited, and wrest concessions for them — but that argument has to be guided by principle, not impulse. It cannot pick and choose the objects of its benevolence, or worse, let the media choose them.