As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term draws to an end, his promoters are concerned about the legacy he would leave behind if denied a third term. From Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, all Indian Prime Ministers have been obsessed with their brand of diplomacy and their role in dictating the tone of international relations. From Nehru to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, each one of them has left their own distinctive mark on foreign policy.
India’s first Prime Minister was a towering presence on the world stage. Along with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, he laid the foundations of Non-Alignment. Domestically, Panditji laid the foundations of a modern, secular and vibrant democracy. Yet, his abiding legacy is that of India’s military humiliation at China’s hands. India Gandhi’s is a mixed legacy—the imposition of Emergency and the curtailment of civil liberties, but it is possible that it will be defined by the liberation of Bangladesh. She displayed the ability to show the Americans their place by refusing to succumb under pressure. Vajpayee brought balance into the unipolar world with a close relationship with the US; at the same time engaging Pakistan in a dialogue.
For the present PM, the jury is still out on domestic issues. On the foreign policy front, however, there is no ambiguity. The sincere and genuine efforts he has personally made to improve relations with Pakistan and the US will stand out. He was willing to stake the future of his government on the Indo-US nuclear deal, which was a game-changer of sorts. It is, of course, another matter that the deal remains stuck in red tape, besides being economically non-viable. Those swayed by the dreams of getting better power at cheaper rates are regretting the day they lauded Singh for ending nuclear apartheid. Undoubtedly, Singh’s first term was marked by significant foreign policy initiatives, which would be remembered for a long time. But his second term is being dubbed a diplomatic disaster. India is no longer the most sought-after companion on the high table of diplomacy. Economic disaster has taken the sheen off the Prime Minister’s reputation as an economist engineering a revival.
Above all, utter confusion prevails in diplomatic circles on our stand on the Sino-US relationship and how we deal with Japan and other eastern countries. Our neighbours do not take us into confidence, let alone fear us. Issues relating to foreign policy seldom resonate with the electorate during poll season, but they can critically define how a Prime Minister is remembered.
Those who live under the illusion that the Prime Minister has a credible, consistent foreign policy vision are blaming his advisers for his failure to implement his vision. His 100-odd speeches—which could give some indication of Singh’s thinking on various international issues—hardly reflect any long-term perspective on the challenges which the country faces. From the far east to the far west, with Europe in the middle, India’s stamp is hardly visible on any diplomatic move. While some parts of Europe are engulfed in strife, we have no role to play in any global initiatives. Our decades-old aspiration for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has remained a pipe dream with none of the major powers even willing to take up the issue at the right forums. We, too, seem to have forgotten all about it. UN reforms are just a mandatory part of joint statements issued whenever Singh visits a friendly country like Japan.
In September, the Prime Minister is off to the US, for what is considered to be his last bilateral talks with the US establishment. While various officials are still working on the agenda, they are more concerned about the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry, which begins today. South Block mandarins are finding it difficult to understand the meaning behind the PM’s remarks on China during his interaction with IFS probationers. US diplomats have already been advised by their officials to show Kerry the transcript of Singh’s remarks, which provide an insight into his vision and worldview. A senior MEA official present at the interaction made an interesting comment: “It is one thing for the Prime Minister to say that new entrants to the Foreign Service should carefully study the rising power, China. But it is clearly premature to infer that the United States is a declining power.”
A section of the Congress leadership is now convinced that the PM has advisers who do not share his vision, are incompetent and lazy and not capable of delivering the goods. If this is indeed the case, the PM should not feel hamstrung by the principle of seniority and acceptability in choosing key advisers like the National Security Adviser and the Foreign Secretary. He should pick only those diplomats who can help him craft his vision and ensure its implementation. With the Congress in election mode, it wants Singh to restore India’s supremacy at international forums and acquire some say in determining the course of any future diplomacy required for India’s economic revival. For that to happen, the PM has to take some risks by getting rid of those who have outlived their utility and replace them with effective, credible and suave diplomats who can not only argue with him but also present India’s case with dignity and authority. If some disgruntled seniors quit the service, so let it be. Let the buck-passers be bypassed. The buck stops at the Prime Minister’s desk, and the Prime Minister’s desk only.
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