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HindustanTimes Tue,30 Sep 2014
Diplomatic reations with Pakistan make little sense
Chanakya, Hindustan Times
October 26, 2013
First Published: 23:21 IST(26/10/2013)
Last Updated: 09:04 IST(27/10/2013)

Indian foreign policy suffers from capacity constraints. Strangely for a nation of 1.2 billion people it can only throw about 900 of them at the world - diplomatic bodies that is.

Its external affairs ministry budget is about $1.5 billion a year, that includes the overseas aid programmes and passport offices. Throw in interference from regional parties, a population whose idea of "phoren" is the Indian State next door and a soft power arsenal that consists of the Buddha and a lot of brassy films and one realises why no Indian official has ever said "superpower" and the name of his homeland in the same breath.

India needs to prioritise.

There are simply some countries or parts of the world that New Delhi cannot afford to expend too much time and energy to cultivate or generally influence. There are others that it makes sense for India to burn the midnight oil about.

Even among countries that matter to the national interest, there is a need to differentiate. Somewhat like choosing where to put your savings - gold, mutual funds and so on - India must recognise the returns in diplomatic investment can be very different.

The most obvious case is Pakistan. Diplomacy with this country is like wildcatting in the desert, but with minimal geological knowledge. The domestic political cost of getting things wrong is the higher than any other foreign policy initiative. The likelihood of returns is minimal. Most attempts at drilling will come up against hard stone and saline water.

Of course, if you were to succeed, there would be no greater diplomatic prize. Stabilising relations with Pakistan is the Holy Grail of Indian diplomacy. But the likelihood of winning this prize is so minute as to be akin to playing Russian roulette.

There is a reason that the great powers are where Indian leaders like to concentrate their energies. Partly it tickles Indian egos to see their netas parleying with American presidents and Chinese premiers.

But it is a sign of a country's maturity that the amount of time and effort you put into building relations with them is roughly coterminous with what you get in return.

Mind you, things can go wrong occasionally. Beijing became increasingly unpredictable in the last few years of Hu Jintao. Barack Obama has been difficult if only because his interest in foreigners seems to be limited to a) terrorists bearing bombs and b) businessmen bearing contracts.

On the other hand, George W Bush loaded India with more gifts than it could bear.

The bulk of India's neighbours are smallish countries. The concept is relative: Bangladesh would be a giant in population terms in any continent except Asia.

However, the pattern of diplomacy with these countries is similar to a SIP, small amounts of political capital and diplomatic initiative at regular intervals gives you small returns at regular intervals.

The point of all this is to ask whether the Manmohan Singh government is getting its investment priorities right in the global arena?

This is an Indian government on its last legs, its account in the bank of politics well overdrawn and the creditworthiness of the prime minister next to zero. Where should it be investing its foreign policy resources?

Singh is doing some spadework with the United States and China, repairing his failures on the first and seeing if some semblance of normality is possible with the latter. He has succeeded somewhat, an honourable thing to do as it will help his successor.

Relations with the small neighbours, an unsung if half-done success of the government, should not be neglected. As mentioned, like hothouse plants they need regular tending. Relations with Sri Lanka are tense, but should not be ignored. Those with Bhutan are gently entering a new phase. Nepal is good when it comes to India, not so good when it comes to itself.

Myanmar wants us to build roads, dams, supply arms and education - things New Delhi can't seem to do inside India let alone overseas, so that may have to be done later.

The basket that makes the least sense to be putting one's last few eggs in is the one woven in Islamabad. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has signalled from the start that he has no authority over his country's India policy.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has already meant that Kashmir and the Line of Control have become the favoured jihad of the unemployed militant. No black swan is possible with Pakistan. For a year or more, this is the dead horse of Indian diplomacy.

If our western neighbour is not the place where a fading government should expect to make waves, where should Manmohan Singh look? Waves evokes beaches, beaches evoke the Maldives. This is a country in trouble and it is about the right size for the prime minister's political status today.


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