As they meet in Delhi this week,Indias ambassadors must speak truth to power on the reversal in our international fortunes.
It was a British diplomat,Henry Wotton,who famously said at the dawn of the 17th century that an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of the country. The evolution of diplomacy over the last four centuries has,of course,made this dictum a lot less insightful. But Wotton remains right about one thing. Ambassadors must be honest men and women who must be truthful at home. Promoting the nations interests abroad is but one part of an ambassadors job. Equally important is the duty to apprise the political masters at home of the developments beyond borders,and the opportunities and dangers they present to the national interest. Above all,an envoy should let the sovereign know how the nation looks from a clinical external perspective.
Indias ambassadors,who are gathering in New Delhi this week for the last annual brainstorming session under the decade-long UPA rule,are in a better position than most to reflect on the undeniable reversal of Indias international fortunes in the second term of the UPA government. Having created unprecedented diplomatic opportunities in the first term,the UPA has managed to squander them in the second.
To be fair,not everything that went wrong was under the control of the nations foreign policy establishment. Although the UPA governments failures on the economic front have been the most damaging,there is enough blame to go around the Delhi durbar. Some of it must be put squarely on the timorous worldview of the ruling Congress party. And the rest must be owned by foreign policy managers.
Any review of the UPA governments foreign policy record in the second term would highlight at least three major debacles. The first was the mishandling of the nuclear liability legislation in 2010 that turned one of Indias greatest diplomatic victories in the UPAs first term ending Indias prolonged atomic isolation into a disaster. After overturning three and a half decades of international nuclear sanctions against India in the first term,the UPA enacted a piece of self-defeating legislation that prevents the participation of foreign and domestic companies in the long overdue expansion of Indias nuclear power generation programme. Even Indias worst enemies could not have orchestrated it better than UPA 2.
A second disaster was in the wrecking of rare diplomatic opportunities to transform relations with key neighbours,especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Congresss fear of looking weak vis-a-vis Pakistan has made Delhi weaker than ever before in engaging Islamabad. If Delhi missed the big moments to make advances with Pakistan in the first term,it created fresh opportunities in the second only to drop the ball at critical moments. In the second term,the UPA also embarked on a bold effort for a comprehensive overhaul of bilateral relations with Bangladesh,only to back off amidst domestic opposition.
Delhis appeasement of every pressure group at home and the habit of looking at foreign policy through the narrow prism of the Congress partys electoral calculus so visible in recent engagements with Dhaka and Colombo will impose huge costs on Indias foreign policy. No national government can ignore domestic politics in the conduct of foreign policy. In its reluctance to make a strong political case for its foreign policy initiatives and the inability to shepherd key domestic constituencies,the UPA government has wasted fleeting moments of diplomatic opportunity in the neighbourhood.
Third is a comprehensive misreading of great power relations and the re-injection of the much discredited non-aligned ideology back into Indias worldview. If rapid advances in Indias relationship with the US was the signal achievement of UPA 1,slowing down that momentum in the second has been the big failure under UPA 2. The Congress leadership was never too comfortable with the extraordinary progress in relations with America and nearly pulled the plug on the historic civil nuclear initiative. It was at Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs insistence that the deal was reluctantly pushed through. But the party has had the last laugh in the second term as Delhi introduced some distance between itself and Washington.
This was justified as a return to the presumed non-aligned roots of Indias foreign policy and even as a clever manoeuvre to generate major breakthroughs in the relationship with China. Having traded the bird in the hand for two in the bush,the UPA now finds it has little leverage with Beijing. A strong relationship with the US was critical for shaping Indias geopolitical space by expanding its comprehensive national power and reducing the growing strategic gap with China. Having de-emphasised its ties with Washington,Delhi now finds Beijing a lot less accommodating on the boundary dispute and other contentious issues.
The rediscovery of non-aligned rhetoric,meanwhile,has made India marginal to the great global debates of our time. Instead of advancing its bilateral strategic partnerships with all the major powers and emerging as a balancer between the East and West and a bridge between the North and South,Delhi has fallen between many stools in the multilateral arena.
Thanks to the approaching general elections,a debate of sorts is bound to emerge on the nations foreign policy during the decade-long UPA rule. That intensely political and inevitably acrimonious debate is no substitute for an honest professional one among the nations top diplomats. As the cream of a permanent bureaucracy raised to conduct Indias engagement with the world,the envoys gathered in Delhi this week have an obligation to speak truth to power. That might be good therapy for the outgoing sovereign,as well as the incoming one.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express.