New Delhi: The spectre of a “soft” India is visiting the country again. The United Kingdom has refused to give up Vijay Mallya and one of the key middlemen in the controversial AgustaWestland deal. An Indian television channel claims that a sting confirms Dawood Ibrahim’s residence in the posh Clifton area of Karachi. And of course we all know that Masood Azhar and Hafiz Sayeed send terrorists to India secure in the knowledge that India will not harm their persons.

This is not a new phenomenon. It has been known for decades, for example, that Dawood has lived in Clifton. When the heat has grown on him, the ISI has moved him to obscure locations in NWFP or lodged him in safe-houses. This was the case when the Americans showed some extra interest in Dawood in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But he has always returned like a bad penny to Clifton, ever more arrogant about India’s inability or disinclination to get him. India’s passivity has also encouraged Hafiz Sayeed and Masood Azhar to audacious acts of terrorism, the 2008 Bombay attack and the recent Pathankot strike taking them to the summit of their murderous trade.

What causes states like the UK and a bastion of terrorism such as Pakistan regularly to cock a snook at India? They perceive India as a “soft state”, a state that is long on talk and short on action. The United States cannot be so scorned, nor for the matter Russia and China. Russia is quick to enforce action against who it perceives as an enemy of the Russian state. Such action is rarely seen as legal in the Western world, but it is effective all the same. China is not a bad enforcer either. The action against the Lal Masjid in Pakistan was the result of the persecution of Chinese citizens in the residential and commercial districts surrounding the Masjid. That single act of storming the Masjid created the Pakistan Taliban. But China will compel action of the same nature again if its national interests are threatened.

The absence of comparable Indian measures to enforce its interests in foreign territories is usually put down to a lack of political will. China has levers in Pakistan; India doesn’t. But the general argument still prevails. The lack of political will is not a new development. It has been present since independence. Jawaharlal Nehru lacked the will to stay and fight in Jammu and Kashmir till all the raiders were killed or expelled. The Indian Army pleaded for time to complete operations. Nehru precipitately petitioned the United Nations and internationalized the Kashmir issue.

The logical thing for Indira Gandhi was to splinter West Pakistan after she had broken away the Eastern wing and made it Bangladesh. In further years, the Israelis were prepared to do an Osirak on Pakistan’s fledgling nuclear programme but Indira Gandhi backed off. It was only many decades later that India became active in Afghanistan, a critical backer of Russia, Iran and the Northern Alliance against Pakistan and the Taliban/ Al-Qaeda. Somewhere in that duration, there was a mysterious attempt to neutralize Hafiz Sayeed. Perhaps even he has forgotten the attempt.

When the covert services were doing some extraordinary work in the region, they were either pretty much left alone by a weakened government at the Centre, or there was a government not lacking in political will. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government often fitted the second description, although it too baulked from launching Operation Parakram to its full extent. This lack of general political will has defined all Indian governments since 1947. It poses a serious challenge to India’s rise.

The IPKF’s failure in Sri Lanka is often employed as an argument against Indian foreign action. The IPKF failed because it was not given a political objective. If peacekeeping was the real aim, it should have been handled by the United Nations. Counterterrorism action against Pakistan is an altogether different thing. India has compelling national interest to neutralize terrorists based in Pakistan. If India is serious in its pursuit of national interest, it will be reflected in its actions against Pakistan and the United Kingdom now.

The opposite is happening. A Union minister casually goes to the Rajya Sabha and says apropos the UK’s refusal to deport Mallya: “But we expected this.” Whoever said that was unserious. And a former Union Home Minister hardly covers himself with glory saying that Pakistan will never hand over Dawood. So what was he doing all these years to neutralize him? Precisely nothing. How can India reach anywhere with ministers who are not serious and who have no understanding of the consequences of their defeatist statements?

Obviously the view from the outside is quite different from how things really are within the confines of government. Things seem a lot easier outside than inside. Nevertheless, India has to be proactive in defending its interests externally. Proactivity is not the equivalent of bombast and flag-waving. It means quiet and far-reaching action such as the operation against Osama Bin Laden. Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar and Hafiz Sayeed must be brought to justice. This is essential for India to be counted as a serious power.