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Twilight years for our foreign policy

Given the instability in the neighbourhood, and the complex global scenario, it might be that our challenges are even more daunting than in the past. In this context, it is worth investigating the background of the three men who have primary responsibility for our foreign policy. These are PM Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister SM Krishna and MK Narayanan, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Jul 30, 2009 21:45 IST

In the 60 years since Independence, there have been three periods in which India has faced serious challenges in the sphere of foreign policy. In the late 1940s, we were being asked to take sides in the Cold War, then about to get hot. Then, in the early 1970s, the crisis in East Pakistan forced us to do what we had wisely refused to in the 1940s, namely, actually align with one superpower rather than remain equidistant from both.

The third period in which our foreign policy-making skills are being severely tested is the present. We live in a disturbed neighbourhood. Pakistan is beset by the rise of the Taliban and the insurgency in Balochistan. Sri Lanka has just come through a bloody civil war, with no guarantee of a stable peace. Nepal is stumbling insecurely along the path of constitutional democracy.

The democratic system in Bangladesh is threatened on the one side by the military and on the other by Islamic radicals.

We also live in a global world of ever shifting alliances. The United States still seeks to be the sole superpower, but its claims are being challenged by a rising China, a combative Russia, and a less than deferential European Union. Meanwhile, relations between nations, big and small, are compounded by new problems. Once, bilateral ties dealt chiefly with economic, political, and cultural issues. These remain, but to them have been added the threats of terrorism and climate change.

Given the instability in the neighbourhood, and the complex global scenario, it might be that our challenges are even more daunting than in the past. In this context, it is worth investigating the background of the three men who have primary responsibility for our foreign policy. These are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan.

Two things are common to these men — their age, and their relative lack of experience in foreign policy. Krishna is 77 years old. He has never before served in a Union Cabinet. His political career has been spent wholly in his home state, Karnataka, where he held office as deputy chief minister and chief minister (he later also served a term as governor of Maharashtra). Nearly 50 years ago he did a Master’s degree in an American university. However, his professional acquaintance with global or international matters since has been slight.

M.K. Narayanan is 75. Unlike his predecessors as NSA (such as J. N. Dixit and Brajesh Mishra), he does not come from a Indian Foreign Service background. A career officer of the Indian Police Service, he ended up as the director of the Intelligence Bureau. Like Krishna, his lack of experience in the field is conspicuous. Indeed, some have put it more strongly, arguing that Narayanan’s police background promotes a tunnel vision that impedes a wider understanding of regional and global forces.

The foreign minister and the NSA both report to the prime minister. Manmohan Singh certainly has a more global orientation than his colleagues, a product of the years spent working for international organisations, and of his own interest as an economist in trade and liberalisation. He is less insular than some other prime ministers (V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda come to mind); yet he is not as personally interested or invested in foreign policy as some others (such as Jawaharlal Nehru). Also going against him is his age (he will turn 77 in September), and his health — after two heart by-pass surgeries, he cannot as easily stand the strain of regular foreign travel as a man 20 years younger. Finally, unlike the NSA and the foreign minister he has many other things on his plate.

By way of comparison, consider the ages of those with principal responsibility for foreign policy in other countries. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is 61. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband is 44. His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is nine years older. Also 53 years of age is Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Qureshi. I suspect that the equivalent of our NSA in these (and other countries) is likewise in his 50s or 60s. Age apart, the videshi equivalents of our foreign minister and NSA often also have better credentials in the field.

To work in foreign affairs or national security requires one to be awake at all hours and alert to all possibilities, to be comfortable with modern technology and to be interested even in obscure parts of the world, and, finally, to be willing to travel long distances at the drop of a hat. To be sure, youth by itself does not qualify one to be a good diplomat, foreign policy expert, or strategic thinker. (Consider the callowness of David Milliband). Energy and alertness do need to be accompanied by wisdom and experience. But the latter without the former can be equally unhelpful. A useful rule of thumb may be to get someone more than 50 but less than 70.

At the risk of being accused of ‘age-ism’, one must ask whether the recent misjudgements in our dealings with Pakistan and the United States are completely unconnected with the age of our principal negotiators. For the worrying thing is that the prime minister, the foreign minister and the NSA are all the wrong side of 75. In the rocky ocean of global politics, the Indian ship of State can carry one old man, perhaps even two. But three?

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.

The views expressed by the author are personal.