Foreign policy goal: Keep the economy shining, India will inevitably become a great power, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.india Updated: Mar 05, 2006 01:51 IST
When Manmohan Singh met a group of newspaper editors recently, he was asked what had been a revelation for him after becoming prime minister. His reply: “Foreign policy and defence.” When Singh moved to Racecourse Road, the strategic community had to be reassured that he had the experienced J.N. Dixit as his national security advisor, such was Singh’s reputation as a know-nothing about the games that nations played.
There was disquiet even in Pakistan when Dixit passed away. It left a hole in the government that remains unfilled. But Singh by then had evolved when it came to foreign policy. He had a mind fine enough to recognise his ignorance and agile enough to begin mugging up almost from the day he entered office. Also, Singh realised that foreign affairs and his own economic concerns were two sides of the same coin. Or, as one Indian official put it, “When economics gets big enough, it becomes strategic.”
Singh’s foreign policy has so far seemed to be on autopilot — a straight flight path without ups or downs. But the successful conclusion of the nuclear separation plan marks his government’s coming of age in international affairs. The prime minister not only faced down tough bureaucratic and political opposition, but worked to a strategic plan that he saw of overriding national interest.
His world-vision has become sufficiently fleshed out to deserve a label. Economics lies at the heart of the Manmohan doctrine. Since he has come to office, Singh has argued India needs to rack up economic growth of at least eight per cent over a decade. After that, India’s future is assured. Last year he upped the figure to 10 per cent.
Singh knows what is needed when it comes to economic reforms at home. What he has recognised since he came to office is that he can also make the “10 per cent solution” the overriding goal of Indian foreign policy as well. And it works both says. Singh understands that in international relations a weak country is at a disadvantage. The task then is to find some leverage that compensates for this handicap. He’s realised that India’s leverage is the very economic growth rate that he is promoting: sell eight per cent to get 10 per cent.
The Manmohan doctrine is an engine driven by four cylinders.
Singh sees energy as the crucial barrier to the rise of a new India. Singh’s logic runs something like this: India uses imported oil and gas for 70% of its fuel needs. As he says, “This is too large a dependence.” Most of this comes from West Asia, the most volatile part of the world. India needs more energy, but it also needs to diversify its energy sources. One of the best options is nuclear power. But Singh sees new coal technology, solar power, hydrogen fuel cells and even fusion as areas where India needs to do more.
So New Delhi has gone after everything and anything. India buys oilfields and prospecting rights around the world. It pursues nuclear power deals with the US and a gas pipeline with Iran. This could be energy year. It’s begun with the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, promising to provide all of India’s oil and gas needs. A month later, India’s civilian nuclear programme is set for revival.
When they meet, Singh tells his leftwing allies, “I am not pro-American.” But he accepts that in this century, India and the US are the Inseparables. The obvious case is the economy. In over 150 speeches, Singh has avoided citing the Chinese economy as a compass. “He believes the Chinese model, including its treatment of labour, is incompatible with democracy,” says an aide. India’s growth engine is fuelled by tech-and-service and Singh plans to stick to that. But the one country essential to keeping that engine ticking is the US.
The additional bonus is George W. Bush, a US ruler determined to help India. Singh isn’t spurning a gift horse the size of a superpower, so he’s gotten the sole superpower to give India a leg-up in everything he can think of: agriculture, coal, space, mango exports. Ten per cent is so much easier with the US behind you.
However, the US holds one more attraction to Singh and that’s democracy. “This prime minister takes the idea of democracy seriously,” says an Indian official. Singh has publicly stated that all other forms of government are “aberrations.” He and Dubya see eye-to-eye on this. Of course, for Bush it comes from the gut; for Singh, it comes from classical liberal philosophy.
Asia-Pacific is the most economically vibrant region of the world. Yet India has only a tenuous connection to this dynamo. This is the third pillar of the Manmohan doctrine: India needs to do more than “look east,” it needs to be physically grafted to the east.
Singh variously calls this region the “arc of advantage” or the “arc of prosperity”. He predicts the “eventual creation of an Asian Economic Community” that will “become a reality in the early part of the 21st century.” India cannot afford to be outside this process. So far the policy has been to use the ASEAN-India relationship as a springboard. It earned India a half-victory at the recent East Asia Summit.
But India’s tariff walls and foreign investment barriers remain well out of synch with East Asia. China is not always helpful. However, a number of countries like Australia, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan are now more inclined towards India than in the past. But there is plenty that India still needs to do.
The subcontinent has more bad news for India than the rest of the world put together. Official relations with Pakistan are somewhere between freezing and tepid. There has been no chemistry, not even a mild fizz, between Pervez Musharraf, the ex-commando and Singh, the ex-Oxford don. Musharraf is unimpressed with Singh’s insistence that he needs five years in office before he can consider a Kashmir settlement. So Islamabad keeps the terrorism pot boiling.
The news is almost as bad in Nepal and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka merely teeters on the brink of war while the Maldives struggles to transit to democracy.
Singh has spent the past year waggling carrots before India’s neighbours. Settle the security concerns of India and you can share in the world’s second-fastest growing economy, says Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran repeatedly. This has little traction with the likes of Musharraf or King Gyanendra, critics say, as they better understand sticks.
Singh’s fall back policy: Stay calm so long as the neighbours don’t get in the way of the 10 per cent solution. As India shines, some light will eventually get through the blinkers. The Indo-US nuclear deal has only reinforced the view among Pakistanis of their future —“In 50 years, you will be the US and we will be Mexico.”
Singh is acutely aware he is an accidental prime minister and that his government depends on leftwing rowdies for survival. In any case, he is hardly the bang-the-table type. “His leadership is not in the traditional style, in the sense of doing the unexpected,” says an Indian official. “He’ll never pull anything out of a hat.”
Singh prefers to decide, after much thought, on a certain strategic objective and slowly but surely work towards a consensus on achieving this goal. It often means two steps forward, one step back, admit aides. The key is that Singh never gives up, especially if it is directly linked to the 10 per cent solution.
Singh tackled opposition to the nuclear separation plan from hardliners in the Department of Atomic Energy by patiently talking through each and every objection, even as the obstacles raised became increasingly irrational. “They simply ran out of excuses,” says one official.
Singh has now painted a bull’s-eye on Kashmir autonomy. But don’t expect him to throw darts until all other hands are supporting his elbow.