Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s last visit abroad this week to attend a regional summit of the Bay of Bengal littoral in Myanmar was remarkable for the lack of any enthusiasm in the government or interest in the public. After a decade in power, the UPA government and its chief diplomat were clearly drained of all energy. There was little of note in what the PM said or did at the summit. Ten years ago, in his first diplomatic assignment as India’s prime minister, Singh went to Bangkok to attend the first summit of the Bay of Bengal leaders and outlined an ambitious agenda for connecting India with its eastern neighbours. That vision remains largely on paper, thanks to the inability of the UPA government to complete any major trans-border transport project in the region.
Singh’s failure is even more stunning when you consider the extraordinary external opportunities Delhi was presented with in 2004. To his credit, Singh began with a big bang. In the early years of his tenure, the PM signed a historic nuclear deal with the US, negotiated a framework for the comprehensive normalisation of relations with Pakistan, and hammered out a bold agreement with China on the principles for settling the intractable boundary dispute. For much of the remaining decade, Singh struggled to contain the backlash within his own government, the lack of support from a pusillanimous Congress party and the breathtaking opportunism of the main opposition party, the BJP. Singh’s reluctance to exercise the prime ministerial prerogative and responsibility to lead has meant the nuclear deal with the US is stuck in a limbo and relations with Pakistan and China remain uncertain as ever.
Worse, the UPA government’s foreign policy will be remembered for diminishing the Central government’s primacy in the definition and execution of foreign policy goals. Eager to please all political allies at home, Singh limited or abandoned the pursuit of rare strategic opportunities that came his way. The Congress party’s pandering to the Left saw the slowing down of relations with the US. Its deference to the Trinamool Congress resulted in the squandering of the prospects for transforming ties with Bangladesh and the appeasement of the DMK in Tamil Nadu led to the undermining of relations with Sri Lanka. Ironically, despite these pathetic wobbles, none of these parties are allied with the Congress today. This would not be of concern to the nation, but for the enduring costs it has extracted on the foreign policy front.