The circle of India’s diplomatic ambition is shrinking. After years of contemplating which international high table New Delhi should de-mand to join, the country is struggling to keep the Maldives’ childish politicians from misbehaving with each other, trying to get two renegade Italian securitymen back into detention and little-noticed human rights votes on Sri Lanka’s blo-ody recent history.
India’s foreign policy is no longer about grand strategy, it is rather about tactical issues that border on the trivial. This is partly because of the slowing momentum of the economy and the fact that this is effectively an election year with a seemingly endless run of state and central elections on the horizon. But it more broadly reflects a government that has given up on the big picture and looks only for small, preferably electoral-sensitive, victories.
The real damage has been done by the imposition of domestic politics and other interests on the processes of the professional diplomats.
The crisis over the Italian marines was a perfect example. There is and remains a lot of ambiguity over why the marines killed the two Indian fishermen and even more haziness over who has jurisdiction over the incident. But the complications really arose when the issue become first entangled in the local politics of Kerala and then the national elections in Italy.
The somewhat naïve judicial role in releasing the marines for the second round only further muddied the waters. India may declare itself victorious in this squabble with Italy — but this is hardly a country that deserves to absorb so much national and governmental attention given the genuine threats India faces elsewhere. The Sri Lanka vote was a disaster.
The Manmohan Singh government sought to intervene in the vote in a manner designed not to further India’s diplomatic interests but to appease the baser instincts of the DMK. India came out looking less like an emerging power than a banana republic: diluting the language of the UN resolution and then turning around and asking for stronger amendments.
The parliamentary resolution would have been a diplomatic catastrophe, opening the door to similar resolutions by other countries against India on a whole host of issues. The damage to the strategic relationship between New Delhi and Colombo would have been considerable. Again, the political class sought to circumvent what the professional diplomats were trying to do — regardless of the damage to the country’s larger interests.
This is not to criticise politicians. Their interests are different from those of an ambassador. But as the Indian polity becomes increasingly fractious and nationalistic, the safeguards against contaminating India’s foreign and security policy with the emotions and demands of its elections need to be strengthened. Sadly, the ripples from Indian politics are likely to roil the waters of the country’s foreign policy more rather than less. More the reason why buffers need to be developed.