Think local, act local
In India, as in most countries, foreign policy is the obsession of a few but the concern of many. In the second year of its second term, the United Progressive Alliance’s overseas engagements elicit a sense of wariness. No surprise: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s priority is to redefine relations with Pakistan and China.india Updated: May 21, 2010 11:23 IST
In India, as in most countries, foreign policy is the obsession of a few but the concern of many. In the second year of its second term, the United Progressive Alliance’s overseas engagements elicit a sense of wariness. No surprise: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s priority is to redefine relations with Pakistan and China.
Wheel of fortunes
Pakistan, and the terrorist fallout of Islamabad’s policies, easily overshadow all other concerns. A plurality of the Hindustan Times-CNN IBN expert panel expressed concern about the direction of Pakistan policy and “inability to control terrorism” was rated the third biggest overall failing of the UPA.
This is not the same as opposing dialogue. It reflects a lack of confidence that New Delhi can handle a Pakistan marked by the traits of a failed state and a China wearing the trappings of a superpower-in-the-making. Asked to rate the best-performing ministries, the External Affairs Ministry received less than four per cent of the vote. Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s approval rating was similar to that of Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Singh, who has braved initial skepticism about economic reforms and the nuclear deal, is determined to pursue dialogue with Pakistan. Encouraged by what he experienced in his talks with Pervez Musharraf, Singh sees going the extra mile with Islamabad a gamble worth taking. It won’t be easy: the storm that followed the Sharm el Sheikh statement was a reminder of how thin-skinned even the prime minister’s own party is about Pakistan, post-26/11.
The UPA has signalled that foreign policy, in this term, will not be about big bangs. It will be about small steps, tying up loose ends, the diplomacy of page 10 rather than headlines. Pakistan and China are obvious hard slogs. But even US relations is today about leftover bits of the nuclear deal and slowly building counterterror bridges.
Among the less noted foreign policy accomplishments is India’s transformation of its relations with smaller neighbours like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. “Compared to UPA I, the UPA II is yet to have a big ticket item on its agenda. A lot of attention is being paid towards the neighbourhood,” says ex-foreign secretary, Salman Haidar. The ministry likes to tout its Saudi extradition treaty and India’s influential role in the G-20.
But the lack of a big picture has led to a sense of an India slipping into passivity. This perception has been especially fed by Afghanistan where policies determining the future of a country strategically important to India seem to being made everywhere except New Delhi. It hasn’t helped that South Block’s public profile was largest when Shashi Tharoor’s rep was at its lowest.
Left and Right ideologues make a common cry that the US has too strong an influence in Singh’s worldview. This is not reflected in the poll’s findings: less than 15 per cent saw this as a UPA weakness. In fact, the nuclear deal and improving US relations were rated the fourth and seventh biggest accomplishments of the UPA overall.
Singh’s foreign policy apparatus, key parts of which are housed in the Prime Minister’s Office, remains confident its policies will bear fruit in the next few years. The Afghan situation is already beginning to shift in India’s favour. The US’s attempts at bonhomie with China have fallen flat. And Beijing is treating last year’s bilateral harshness as a closed chapter. But a major terrorist attack emanating from Pakistan remains the joker in the pack, the act that could sink the UPA II’s global vision.
(With inputs from Pramit Pal Chaudhuri)