Foreign policy is a battle of perception and India isn’t on a winning streak.
After the Chinese occupation of parts of Depsang valley on April 15 followed by Sarabjit Singh’s murder in a Pakistani jail, questions are being raised on who is running Indian foreign policy.
Is it the Prime Minister, with his conciliatory attitude towards India’s belligerent neighbours?
According to reports, Sarabjit’s release was not even on the agenda of talks between Manmohan Singh and Pakistan president Asif Zardari last April, though an ailing Pakistani scientist Chisty was released by India on humanitarian grounds. Zardari had campaigned for his release while India kept mum on Sarabjit.
Does the dithering Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid -- whose China visit slated for May 9 is being met with China’s apparent indifference -- have a say in formulating Indian foreign policy?
Is it India’s ineffective foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, who retires in June and has been unable to take decisions within his own ministry like appointing key envoys who takes the call on India’s international stance?
Or is it the National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, the advocate of a soft policy towards China and other neighbours who decided Indian foreign policy?
The divergent dynamics, or the lack of it, has brought Indian diplomacy to its lowest nadir since the Indo-China War in 1962.
Defence Minister A K Antony -- known for his peacenik image -- toed the PMO line on the Chinese intrusion by advocating diplomatic resolution.
However, the Army and the Foreign Ministry were at loggerheads over China and Pakistan.
Defence sources claimed that the Army had told the China Study Group headed by the NSA that, “the first 48 hours after the intrusion was detected were crucial”.
It would have been “easier to evict the Chinese camps in that period, but there was no green light from the top”. But the South Block repeated a single chant -- the Army should stand down and there should be no confrontation on the border.
Dither and Slither
The NSA-led Ministry of External Affairs is hawking peace even as Chinese soldiers are sitting within Indian orders and Indian soldiers were beheaded on the LoC. Manmohan Singh, desperately but ineffectually trying to save his image, is abstaining from opening any other front.
The US pressure to maintain military stability in the region has weakened a pliant India, which has been told to refrain from military action against an election-bound Pakistan. Even symbolic actions like suspending group visas and restricting business visits of Pakistani citizens are not being done in order to prevent Manmohan’s ill-fated peace process from failing.
On Wednesday, the Army chief briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and given various options to remove the Chinese, including the use of military aggression. But he was vetoed. This paralysis is seriously worrying the Congress, which faces elections in 2014, having sensed the popular mood against the government after Sarabjit’s killing and the Chinese incursion.
South Block sources say that the abject political failure owes a lot to Menon’s ‘ivory tower’ style. He was India’s Foreign Secretary during the controversial Sharm el-Sheikh talks where India was humiliated by Pakistan. As the opposition BJP and even supporting partner Mulayam Singh opened fire on the UPA for its failure to counter Chinese aggression, or save the lives Sarabjit and Chamel Singh in Pakistan’s jails, the Congress’ war-team at Rakabganj Gurdwara Road had to step in.
It was not the government, but they who uploaded the UPA’s foreign policy initiatives on an unofficial Face-book page on the PM as a last ditch attempt to contain the damage. The dithering government, out of sync with the national outrage on China and Pakistan’s transgressions, and the political backlash they anticipate has not able to promptly cancel Khurshid’s proposed Beijing trip in face of the Chinese aggression.
In certain quarters in Islamabad, the message has filtered through that New Delhi will not take any strong step, however big the provocation, as the talks -- lavish lunches to Pakistan Minister -- as per the US blueprint. The PMO directly handles Pakistan policy, thereby ensuring only pliant Foreign Ministers like S M Krishna handled India’s image abroad.
“On Pakistan, Menon is on the same page as Manmohan Singh. They are both inclined to give a degree of leeway to Islamabad, despite its various transgressions, and at the cost of underestimating an enraged public opinion,” informs a foreign policy wonk.
Dove in South Block
The PMO’s captaincy of Indian foreign policy has weakened the Foreign Minister’s authority and given extra muscle to the NSA. Described as “intellectually arrogant” by a South Block colleague.
Sources say that Ranjan Mathai has been so ineffectual that he has been able to appoint only one joint secretary in the MEA. He has chosen to keep quiet on both Sarabjit and the Chinese incursion. Meanwhile, being a China watcher is part of Menon’s family heritage -- his grandfather KPS Menon was the first Indian ambassador to China, so was his uncle. Menon himself has served thrice in Beijing -- and his imprint is writ large on India’s response, which was characterised by the government’s ally Mulayam Singh Yadav as the “biggest humiliation since 1962”.