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Without a strategic compass

How UPA 2’s foreign policy has been incoherent.

Published: April 2, 2014 1:07:09 am
The real damage was to significant bilateral ties in India’s immediate neighbourhood. The real damage was to significant bilateral ties in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

How UPA 2’s foreign policy has been incoherent.

The striking feature of UPA 2’s foreign policy has been the lack of a defining vision and a central goal that could infuse India’s global engagement with purpose. In its absence, the formulation of foreign policy displayed confusion; its execution became reactive, episodic and timid. The creation of a peaceful and secure external environment to enable unimpeded attention to domestic development is the underlying motivation, but that is insufficient to impart foreign policy with a sense of direction.

Should Prime Minister Manmohan Singh contemplate his second term, he will no doubt regard UPA 2’s inability to build political consensus in critical areas of India’s foreign relations as a major failure. Consequently, regional political forces acquired a virtual veto in a space that the Constitution reserves for the Centre.

Worse, foreign policy became one more arena for the Congress and BJP to trade charges. No one excelled in this more than External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. In his recent article in this newspaper, he claimed that while the last external affairs minister to visit Kandahar had escorted terrorists — a reference to Jaswant Singh’s trip to the Kandahar airport on December 31, 1999, during the IC-814 hijack — he had gone there recently to lay the foundation of an agricultural university that is being constructed with India’s help (‘Cabinet, CCS have steered India from nuclear winter (sanctions) to participation in the global nuclear discourse’, IE, March 13, 2014). In fact, Yashwant Sinha, as external affairs minister, had visited Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, apart from Kabul, in August 2002, as part of a three-day official visit to Afghanistan.

UPA 2’s foreign policy forays in the area of critical bilateral relationships, regional endeavours or issues that the international community is faced with were sporadic and inept. After the high point of the Barack Obama visit in 2010, a vital bilateral relationship was allowed to languish. The Devyani Khobragade issue is as reflective of stalled ties as of US perfidy and a failure on the part of the Indian mission in Washington and of South Block in diplomatic anticipation. The nuclear liability law quagmire reveals that sustained diplomatic breakthroughs cannot be achieved unless all the implications of an issue are taken into account. A backlash, often enervating the original objective, as in the case of the India-US nuclear agreement, is the inevitable consequence of uncommunicative silence.

A deteriorating economy and a government perceived to be on the ropes eroded the attraction of the Indian market. Consequently, many Western countries, and some in South America and Africa, indicated a diminished interest in India, which UPA 2 did little to arrest. The real damage, however, was to significant bilateral ties in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

UPA 2’s Pakistan policy was a comprehensive failure. It was marked by inconsistency and the emotional yearning of Manmohan Singh as it swung from one extreme to another. Sharm el-Sheikh, Thimphu and New York bear witness to the continuous swinging of the policy pendulum between “dialogue and terrorism cannot go together” and “the need for uninterrupted dialogue”. Pakistani official documents state unequivocally that India is a permanent threat and, by implication, a permanent enemy. The use of terror is an enduring part of its security doctrine. Yet no attempt was made to effectively meet the challenge of terrorism. The pursuit of trade, good in itself, cannot be at the cost of national security. One dangerous development was Pakistan’s decision to acquire tactical nuclear weapons. Except for a bland reiteration of India’s nuclear doctrine, the country was left in the dark about how it would deal with Pakistan’s move. India’s Afghanistan policy was, in some important respects, held hostage to its Pakistan policy. This has perplexed the Afghan leadership.

As China spread its influence in India’s neighbourhood, in the Indian Ocean and to the east of the country, and acquired potential staging posts, UPA 2 appeared to be a dithering spectator. It was content to repeat the tired mantra that the world had enough space to accommodate the growing needs of both countries. The challenge requires nimble approaches towards regional states that are concerned with Chinese orientations. It was only recently that there appeared some movement in this direction, as shown in relations with Japan.

The absence of political energy behind diplomatic moves has, over the past four years, led to a reduction of India’s role and influence in issues of international concern, ranging from climate change to the reform of international institutions, including the UN Security Council, to international trade to terrorism.

Behind a frayed foreign policy lay a frayed policy-making mechanism. No attention was paid to the need for a more integrated foreign office. It continued to work in silos. The work distribution among the foreign office secretaries, in the absence of any formal dispensation, continued to be skewed. The office of the national security advisor cast a long and debilitating shadow, diminishing the effectiveness of the foreign office and India’s diplomacy. UPA 2’s successor will have to impart, as an urgent priority, a well-conceived momentum to promote India’s external interests. The world will welcome India’s return to intense and all-round engagement.

The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan

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