Optics are often as, if not more, important than the contents of foreign policy in an age of instant impact and political reverberations. Despite rendering seminal help and material assistance to the Mahinda Rajpaksa regime to eliminate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and close out the civil war in Sri Lanka, India finds itself on the outs with Colombo. The Sri Lankan government and people had plainly hoped to use the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to showcase the country’s return to normalcy and the international mainstream, such summits being less important for what they achieve- which is usually very little- than because they give the host country the chance to preen itself on the world stage. With the event now robbed of its sheen and Rajpaksa denied his moment by an absconding Indian PM, New Delhi should brace for a payback with interest. China will, as usual, be the beneficiary. The CHOGM fiasco highlights the Congress coalition’s inchoate foreign policy and, for his role in it, undermines finance minister P Chidambaram’s credentials as PM to replace the hapless Manmohan Singh in an unlikely concatenation of future events.
If Manmohan Singh is remembered at all it will be for his personal qualities of servility and cravenness, his failure to push through the slate of economic reforms, and his uninspired views on what India can and cannot do in the external realm. Late in his tenure, the prime minister articulated the principles that have guided his foreign policy, which his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru, a trifle grandly, labeled “The Singh doctrine” (Indian Express, November 6, 2013). Speaking to the heads of Indian missions, he said that the creation of “a global environment conducive to the well-being of our great country”, is the “most important objective”, followed by globalising the Indian economy, creating “stable, long-term and mutually beneficial relations with all major powers”, working with the “international community to create a global economic and security environment beneficial to all nations”, and forging connectivity with the subcontinental states. These principles came with the warning that foreign policy had to be configured not “merely by our interests, but also [our] values” with “democracy and secularism” helpfully identified as the values dictating policy direction and content.
With abstractions to handle-how is “well-being of the country” to be translated into a foreign policy metric, pray? -and improbable guidelines to hew to - would emphasising secularism not require India to de-rate our relations with avowedly Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, say, in which case, how would the country cope with denial of access to Saudi oil and to Chahbahar, the Iranian entrepôt to Central Asia? - the audience of Indian ambassadors would have struggled mightily to make sense of this mushy presentation by the prime minister. It fuels the suspicion that Manmohan Singh doesn’t even understand the basics of foreign policy and diplomacy and the extent of practicability in this realm. What the “Singh doctrine” does do is bring confusion in its train.
Unsurprisingly, this “doctrine” without any delineation of national interests and any hints about the utility of military power, coercive use of force, or the emerging geostrategics that are tilting against India, seems entirely disconnected from the harsh reality of international relations where might is right. It presumes an ideal world in which interstate discord is absent as is interstate violence, and there’s no clash of national interests- as in a large, well-behaved, family- that cannot be conciliated. Thus, the injunction to craft “mutually beneficial relations with all major powers” assumes firstly that India’s national interests are aligned in the same way with all of them and to the same degree and, therefore, that China, for example, will not take amiss a security initiative with the United States. In a similar vein is the desire for a “global economic and security environment beneficial to all nations” -which, other than seeking to replace the United Nations is, in practical terms, a near nonsensical policy predicate. Has New Delhi, unbeknownst to the rest of us, taken the theka (contract) for the security of “all nations”?
Hearing such claptrap mumbled by Manmohan Singh in his usual low-decibel monotone, many of the envoys on the back benches would have dozed off, those in the middle rows tuned out, and those stuck in the front seats trying to look thoughtful, because transforming unimplementable rhetorical flourishes into actual policy measures is impossible business. No wonder, faced with such an exercise, “the foreign ministry and the foreign policy establishment” in the last decade behaved, according to Baru, as “a debating society” in which “everyone was holding forth on grand principles and no one devoting time or attention to getting things done the way [the Prime Minister] wanted” leading to a “wayward” policy. Did the MEA denizens have a choice, considering these “principles” read like a laundry list of dos and don’ts an international do-gooders’ society would happily own up to?
Meanwhile in the real world, India’s foreign policy is tanking. Bangladesh will be lost to the BNP-Islamist combo because Manmohan won’t shove Mamata Banerjee’s objections to the Teesta River Accord and the rationalisation of the border, aside. The Northeast will be lost to China because he won’t order the environment ministry under Jayanti Natarajan against taking a wrecking ball to the defence ministry’s plans for fast-tracking the construction of a border road network, and to Arunachal Pradesh’s plans for dams and hydroelectric projects to make it a prosperous, energy-surplus, state.
And MEA’s pigheaded refusal to permanently create an international shindig over reunification of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir with Jammu and Kashmir as the only unfinished business of Partition has ensured, moreover, that India’s claim to all of the erstwhile princely state of Kashmir is eroding fast, what with the transportation links being erected by the Chinese at their normal breakneck speed through Baltistan to Chinese-occupied Tibet.
At this rate, the Singh doctrine will leave for a successor government a foreign policy cupboard as bare as the treasury (courtesy the UPA regime’s slate of wasteful and corruption-feeding populist schemes).
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com