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Regaining the initiative

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to meet US President Barack Obama next month in Italy...

Written by Pranab Dhal Samanta |
June 4, 2009 12:32:14 am

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to meet US President Barack Obama next month in Italy,it will now come in the backdrop of two recent setbacks that have unravelled the entire post-Mumbai diplomacy drive. The listing of Jamaat-ud Dawa and its leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed under the UN Al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctions resolution was among the high points of the UPA government’s diplomatic offensive after the Mumbai attacks. This move had been put on hold for over a year by China. New Delhi thought the momentum was with it and moved another request for banning Jaish-e-Mohammed head Maulana Masood Azhar,LeT kingpin in the Mumbai train blasts Azam Cheema and key JuD ideologue Abdul Rehman Makki. It was expected to sail through but a few weeks back India learnt that of all countries,the United Kingdom,along with usual suspect China,had put the request on hold by demanding “fresh evidence”. These “procedural holds” are the preserve of UN Security Council permanent members,used as an effective diplomatic tool to serve some unstated purpose. The bad news for India is that its own cause seems somewhat expendable,at least for the time being.

India was outraged and demanding after Mumbai,and rightly so. International support swung in its favour along with sympathy. The outgoing Bush administration went out of the way in exposing the Pakistan links to the Mumbai terror plot and pressed ahead. Obama was,then,among the first to call up the Indian ambassador in the US and offer his unqualified support to whatever the outgoing administration planned to do. Pakistan was under immense pressure,forced to act on several fronts,while offers of future support poured into India. Mandarins in the Ministry of External Affairs revelled at this “high priority” status and now,suddenly,see themselves managing India’s shrinking importance in the discourse on terror,where the reference to India is more platitudinous than substantial.

To begin with,someone will have to take responsibility in South Block for letting matters go adrift. It is fashionable to talk about how the Obama administration is getting it wrong,how Richard Holbrooke is unable to see through the “Pakistani game” and how India has successfully defied tacit US pressure to drag Kashmir into the AfPak conundrum. But ever since Obama took charge,India’s policy response has been more reactive than strategic. While it was right to make itself heard,there was little attention paid to what needed to be done next,given that Washington was going to go ahead with its plans anyway. It was obvious that Pakistan had launched a diplomatic counter in Washington,playing on Obama’s stated campaign objective of refocussing the war on terror to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much as it resents being clubbed with Afghanistan,the Pakistani leadership was able to make the point that it cannot be seen to be outdone by New Delhi,by having to admit,investigate and punish the Pakistani roots of terrorism directed against India. In return,it would try its best with the war on its western borders,and India must understand that Pakistan is paying an even heavier price in this campaign.

India did resort to some hectic lobbying in ensuring that the US Bill for releasing aid to Pakistan lays the condition that Islamabad will prevent terrorists from using its soil to launch attacks on India. The specific mention of this was there in the first version of the so called PEACE Act proposed by the House Foreign Relations Committee head Howard Berman,but counter diplomatic pressure has witnessed a dilution of language. There are clear contradictions in Obama’s AfPak policy which aims to strengthen the civilian government in Islamabad but is dependent on the Pakistan army to succeed in defeating the Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces gaining ground there. Now,New Delhi realises this but is still to put in place a strategy which keeps the US more than just mindful of Indian concerns.

At the heart of this is the challenge to reshape the engagement with US. In the initial months of the Obama administration,while Indian diplomats hedged their bets on the elections outcome here,Pakistan backed by a resurgent China made important diplomatic gains on the India front. There is no doubt that Washington does value its partnership with New Delhi,but its instincts are going to be far different from what it was when George W. Bush was in the White House. India was then projected as a rising democratic force that could challenge Chinese dominance,but that is now replaced with a new strategic context where the US feels the need to partner with China on a range of issues — dealing with the global economic crisis,getting Pakistan’s army to act more decisively on its western borders,engaging Iran (it has been invited to the July 4 celebrations),and now the latest being re-energising the six-party talks after North Korea exploded a nuclear device. One can add operationalising the CTBT and FMCT to the list.

The strategic context has rapidly changed since the time India went to polls. While our political masters were preoccupied with electoral concerns,Indian diplomacy reacted with old fashioned predictability even though these changes were anticipated. Saeed’s release and UK’s surprising intransigence in the UN,are just symptoms of the fast changing list of priorities for all major powers. It is clear that the onus is squarely on India to now be imaginative and provide a fresh momentum to its engagement with the US — one of the areas could be defence,which suffered due to Left pressure in the last term and then,of course,moving faster on trade,and liberalising FDI norms. The encouraging sign is that the PM seems to understand the urgency,going by some of the handpicked appointments he has made in ministries that have significant external orientations. He will be meeting Obama next month at the G-8 Summit,and before that the leaders of Russia,China and Brazil,all of which will be opportunities. At the core of this engagement will have to be a renewed effort at adding substance to the relationship than just winning the argument. Reason: Unlike six months ago,no one is really volunteering unqualified help today.

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