In perhaps one of the longest retirement dramas in Indian politics, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally, though petulantly, announced his withdrawal from public life after the impending national elections. The announcement comes five years too late and leaves behind a deeply troubling legacy of missed opportunities particularly in India’s ability to shape the emerging world to its advantage.
This despite the fact that Singh considered the signing of the India-US nuclear deal in 2008 as the singular “best moment” of his two-term tenure in office. In fact, it is this deal and the squandered opportunity to build on it that exemplifies his flawed legacy.
According to Singh, the deal ended the “nuclear apartheid which had sought to stifle the processes of social and economic change, and technical progress” and led to India’s de facto recognition as a nuclear weapon state and emerging power. Yet Singh was unable to convince his own party, let alone the belligerent opposition or the public at large of the merits of his case. This was partly on account of his instinct to hog all of the credit for the deal rather than magnanimously share it with the opposition.
Indeed, the 2008 nuclear deal would not have been possible had not the groundwork been laid in the dozen or so rounds of negotiations between the erudite former foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, and the accomplished arms control negotiator, Strobe Talbott. It was their efforts between 1998 and 2000, culminating in the visit of President Bill Clinton to India in March 2000, during the tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition that laid the foundation for Singh’s “best moment”.
Singh’s reluctance to share credit for the deal was matched by the BJP’s reticence to give credit where it was clearly due. This inability to build a national consensus jeopardizes the future prospects of the signal deal under a likely non-Congress-led coalition.
The nuclear deal was never only about buying a few power reactors from the US; it was an opportunity to fundamentally alter the existing world order. Yet, Singh failed to capitalize on it.
Instead of trying to shape the new nuclear order through bold initiatives, (like president Barack Obama did with the 2012 nuclear security summit) Singh resurrected the embarrassingly naïve and defunct Rajiv Gandhi action plan for nuclear disarmament. Moreover, even though the nuclear security summit process which sought to secure nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists would have served India’s interests, Singh’s support to the initiative was minimalist.
For instance, India never even sought to host one of the nuclear security summits. This is probably because of New Delhi’s aversion to plurilateral processes and preference for multilateral processes even though it has greater chance of influencing the outcome in the former than the latter.
The same reluctance was evident in the engagement with the Group of Twenty (G20) countries, where Singh’s command of economic issues would have put him in a dominating position. Instead, during his entire tenure, India shied away from hosting a G20 summit even though this would have been advantageous to India and Singh’s legacy.
Similarly, while India vociferously coveted a permanent UN Security Council seat, not a single minister (let alone Singh) showed up during India’s two presidencies in its 2011-12 term. In contrast, political leaders of other aspirant nations to the Council presented bold initiatives during their presidencies.
Clearly, if contemporary media has been harsh on Singh then he has only himself to blame. History may well be kinder to Singh but equally those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Any future incumbent, whatever their political hue, would do well to remember that.
W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org