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Like a persistent rash

columns Updated: May 04, 2013 23:55 IST

Hindustan Times
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India shining was a slogan that went too far. But a sense of India tarnished would not be off the mark to describe the national mood today. There is a sense of helplessness among the Indian public following the brutal murder of Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani prison. This has only been magnified by the Chinese intrusion into the Depsang plateau in eastern Ladakh, an intrusion for which New Delhi believes face cleanser is the solution.

The sense of foreign policy drift only echoes a similar state of affairs in the Indian economy and polity. None of the crown jewels of the new India are showing much lustre. The haloed Indian software and telecom sectors are under a cloud. Manmohan Singh, once seen as a statesman for an emerging India, is today like the blank-faced uncle who sits in the corner during family weddings and gets ignored by everyone.

There is an element of exaggeration in all this, of course. The Indian economy’s growth trough is probably over. There is good news: notice how the fastest growing states happen to be our poorest. The country will soon be showing its democratic mettle in the coming months as a billion ballots are cast in successive elections. And has anyone noticed that Kashmir and the North-east are at their lowest levels of insurgent violence in decades?

Foreign policy failure, however, is always different from a domestic cock-up. One, what goes wrong at home can often be corrected indigenously. Foreign policy is about pushing the national interest in an environment where national influence can be minimal. Two, when things go wrong at the diplomatic negotiating table the result can be catastrophic. A poorly-drafted trade agreement, like the one India signed with Thailand, can severely damage the economy. A territorial dispute gone wrong can mean war.

Average Sharma broadly gets this. He may talk in terms of defending national pride and using a big stick, but there is an underlying recognition that if a foreign policy starts to crack on the edges the fallout could be catastrophic, much worse than the passing impact of a poor monsoon or even a major illness. A loss in the global sphere can take a century or two to recover from.

The Singh government had a dream foreign policy run in its first term. No one expected a repeat performance. As it is, it hasn’t even been close. The global financial crisis exposed how rickety the Indian economy remains. Its neighbourhood policy looked promising. Consider: two South Asian civil wars have been wound down. But the Maldives ended as a comedy of errors. Bangladesh will end a tragedy — a historic opportunity slain by a Lady Macbeth in a cotton sari. Even the United States relationship, thanks to a bungled nuclear liability law, is back to squabbling over small things and not conferring on big ones.

The lack of accomplishment elsewhere has meant the public and media have reverted to measuring foreign policy success by the traditional yardsticks of Pakistan and China.

Weirdly, Pakistan is the good news in all this. Yes, Singh’s quixotic quest to normalise relations has seen him gallop off after peace opportunities that only he saw. Yet, thanks to external circumstances, the root of neighbourly evil — Pakistan’s men in khaki — are becoming politically marginalised.

This did not help Sarabjit Singh. However, the tragedy of his death did underline that the India-Pakistan agenda has become overly caught up in territory and terrorism. These are important, essential, but these won’t be resolved in a hurry.

In the meantime, the people-to-people agenda should have been taken beyond the truck-train-airplane trifecta. Why wasn’t a mechanism to handle the hundreds of innocents stranded on the wrong side of the border every year considered? A lack of imagination, and even a scarcity of empathy, seems evident. South Block chased a blueprint and forgot about brick-and-mortar possibilities.

China is a different story. There isn’t much people stuff in this relationship, it is solely about realpolitik. Beijing suffered a rush of blood the past few years, picking fights with pretty much all its neighbours. New Delhi did the right thing: it responded to provocations like the Kashmir visa issue with a Tibet barrage. China backed down.

Now the game seems a more traditional one of nibbling some land, waiting for an Indian response and then trying to extract a price for a humiliation disguised as a concession. Depsang is inching its way towards the sort of foreign policy disaster that was avoided a few years ago. The government’s response seems to be all brick and mortar without a blueprint.

Eighty armed men, facing each other on the edge of desolation, need to be treated as more than a skin eruption. This could well be a Mandarin malignancy. And the fallout could be an India tarnished transmuting into an India humiliated.