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At home in the world

In 2011, the UPA government found passing simple legislation impossible. But its foreign policy record is not that bad, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2011 22:54 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The UPA didn't get much done this year on the domestic front. It fared marginally better in the international arena. No one exploited New Delhi's plight, partly because so many other governments were in equal disarray. India was even able to nab an opportunity here and there.

Accomplishments in foreign policy are difficult to measure, especially in a short time frame and during so much turmoil. Because India still has isolationist tendencies and drags along a huge poverty tail, it is difficult to judge what might have been versus what actually was.

National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon spoke earlier this year of "the difference between weight, influence and power." India had the first two attributes, but the latter was a work under construction. "Power is the ability to create and sustain outcomes," he said. India, great power-in-the-making, had a mixed record this year when it came to ensuring international outcomes that it desired. But some of its successes may come as a surprise to most — and even some of its failures.

First, the neighbourhood. Historians may one day declare 2011 the year that India got its neighbourhood act together. This has always been seen as essential to India's rise. Without stable and friendly relations with its fellow South Asian nations it can't be a global player. Think of Pakistan, multiply by five and realise why.

This year's Bangladesh initiative was probably the most important foreign policy accomplishment of 2011. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted during his September visit there, "India will never be able to realise its full development potential if other countries in South Asia are not working in harmony with each other and this applies to Bangladesh, more than to any other country."

Of course, there's a hitch. The last piece to the Bangladesh jigsaw is still missing. The Teesta water agreement is being held at gunpoint by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. If it can be freed, New Delhi will have ushered in a golden age of good neighbourliness. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan are in the bag. And it is now conceivable Nepal and Myanmar could join the fold as well.

Second, there's China. What has been missed is that India has squeezed a set of limited outcomes out of China. The last few years were marked by diplomatic fisticuffs with China. The two main ones were Beijing's belligerent-speak over Arunachal Pradesh and its decision to staple visas for Kashmiris. There were other things, but, on closer analysis, they were the same old issues. What hasn't been fully appreciated is that the Middle Kingdom walked back this year. Border incursions by China are at a three-year low. Visas are now pasted for all Indians.

There were a few South China Sea and Dalai Lama moments in 2011, but these will probably prove of less import than they sound on prime time. What is important is that India has drawn lines in the sand and held them at a time when Beijing is unpredictably assertive.

But there is a Mamata Banerjee-type problem in Sino-Indian relations as well. This used to be one bilateral relationship outside the purview of public debate. Today, New Delhi needs to explain its China policy in much the same way as it has done its Pakistan policy. Otherwise, tactical losses will obscure strategic victories out of simple ignorance.

Then there were two reminders of India's weakness.

The world's biggest political upheaval this year, the Arab awakening, was a stark reminder of how limited India's ability can be to affect events in which it has enormous interests.

West Asia, or more accurately the Persian Gulf, is one of the most important regions in the world as far as India is concerned. The statistics say it all: $35 billion worth of remittances, 65% of our oil and all of its gas imports and six million Indian residents. But when West Asia began rocking, India did little more than chew its fingernails.

This is partly a consequence of India's capacities: a tiny foreign service, stretched military assets and weak academic and analytical capabilities. But it is also a fear of involvement in such a hotbed of religious, ethnic and tribal rivalry. West Asia is riven by all the social fissures that the Indian system tries to keep under the carpet at home. Shia-Sunni hostility, Wahabi-Sufi sparring, Muslim versus non-Muslim, West against the Rest — it's all there and aggravated by large amounts of oil money.

New Delhi is thus torn between international interests and domestic demons. "The Partition syndrome," one senior Indian foreign policy official has called it. So it does nothing, even while knowing that if the Arab awakening or the Saudi-Iran rivalry were to get out of control, India's economy would be flattened. So India watches the Arab upheavals with its million-man army, two-trillion dollar economy and 100-ship navy — and turns to prayer. A similar state of affairs continues to play out in the fourth example, the European debt crisis. The European Union is India's largest single trade and investment partner. Already its slow drive on to the path of recession is pushing down the rupee, eating up its foreign exchange reserves and otherwise causing heartburn.

India had a lot of ideas to offer when the subprime crisis threatened the world economy — Singh shone at the Group of 20 Pittsburgh summit. At this year's summit, at Cannes, he was an invisible presence.

It brought home that in financial statecraft you have two instruments — money and ideas. India had neither to offer when it came to the euro-crisis and, in fact, discouraged other emerging economies from contributing to any bailout.

New Delhi probably made the right decision. Europe's crisis is about 90% political and 10% financial. Giving Brussels money would have accomplished little. But if there is a euro-blowout and India is swamped by the blowback, India may yet regret that it didn't at least try to provide leadership and provide cover for China to open its moneybags.

Here again India had interests, few instruments, minimal outcomes and thus showed itself powerless. And this time it wasn't communal sensitivities, it was about simply being too poor.

In a year when the Singh government found passing simple legislation all but impossible, this foreign policy record is not bad. New Delhi has also chalked up some success with Pakistan, many African states and all of China's neighbours — though much of this has been due to circumstances not of India's doing. However, in international affairs there is never any real finality. The Bangladesh story could end as a tragedy if Teesta's waters remain troubled. It's the obvious goal for 2012.