World leaders speak before the United Nations General Assembly with two audiences in minds. One is a domestic audience who expect answers to homegrown concerns and the fulfillment of local expectations.
The other is an international audience who look for signs of global vision and constructive diplomacy within the same set of words. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first visit to the United Nations in three years was notable for how poorly he was able to articulate anything remotely aspirational, for listeners at home and abroad.
India projected a sense of weariness, of fretting about the world situation without having any clarity on what could be done about it. Worse, even the vague policy prescriptions bandied about seemed hypocritical when placed against the recent record of India’s actual international behaviour.
The prime minister’s strength has been his clarity of thought, especially in the field of political economy. Compared to the precise prescriptions that arose from the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh, the United Nations speech was full of vague concerns about globalisation’s ills and slowing growth in the developed world.
Mr Singh spoke bravely of India’s economy playing a balancing role. The contrast between this and near-universal projections of declining Indian growth could not be starker.
It did not escape the notice of India watchers that this domestic slowdown is partly a fallout of Mr Singh’s inability to tackle gridlock in his own government.
It was ironic that he would prescribe greater multilateral effort as an answer to global ills even as India was playing odd man out at the BRICS summit when it came to warding off a eurozone financial crisis. Talk of nuclear power safety was incongruous when Indian reactors struggle to get the more basic requirements of land and insurance.
Mr Singh spoke of the so-called “Arab spring” as a movement of people “demanding the right to shape their own future” — and then decried military intervention in favour of such popular uprisings.
The UN itinerary had no bilaterals with any permanent five members and plenty of meetings with second-tier nations. All this enhanced a sense of an India returning to a more comfortable immediate neighbourhood and fleeing brave talk of being a genuine global player.
Indira Gandhi, no waffler when it came to invoking Third World unity, reportedly declined to ever speak before the General Assembly because she could see little point in doing so.
The truth is that Mr Singh might as well have not given his own speech considering how little it added to India’s image or the global discourse.
The impression he gave was of a world leader seeking respite from a troubled home front and with little time to think of how he and a sixth of mankind could contribute to an equally troubled international scenario.