With the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed into the fifth and possibly terminal year of its existence — there’s no knowing what parties will constitute the ruling coalition after the next general election and if the Congress party will be any part of it—it is time to grade Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s performance in the foreign policy arena.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
In his various capacities in government — as a bureaucrat in the economic ministry, governor of the Reserve Bank of India and, especially, as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister in the early 1990s — Singh became known chiefly for grudging financial support to the country’s strategic programmes relating to nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and the nuclear-powered submarine. This was bad karma to bring to the Prime Minister’s post and spelled danger for India’s strategic independence and standing. The peril materialized with his mindless enthusiasm for the “civil nuclear cooperation” deal with the US.
But the deal was propelled into the public realm by every two-paisa English language press and electronic media editor and commentator plonking for the transaction without any of them knowing the ABC of the subject, assisted by some breathtaking nonsense purveyed by the deal’s supposedly more knowledgeable advocates. The former lot is of little account and can be safely ignored. But, among the latter are notables such as former bureaucrat K. Subrahmanyam who, among other astonishing things, has argued that in the coalition era, there is no need for a political consensus before signing the deal! K. Shankar Bajpai, a former ambassador to Washington, on his part, has contended that Indian leaders have historically missed great opportunities and to drive home the point mentioned, by way of analogy to the nuclear deal, that the leaders of the freedom movement had failed to accept “dominion” status for India when it was first offered by Britain.
It led many to wonder if Bajpai was not more interested in polishing the image of his father, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, than judging the nuclear deal on its merits (presuming, of course, that he understands the technical aspects of the proposed nuclear deal, which seems unlikely, considering that only a handful — if that many — in the legion of retired and serving foreign service officers actually do). Sir Girija was colonial India’s “political agent” in Washington in the 1940s who, on Churchill’s orders, pushed for “dominion” status as a means of deflecting American pressure during World War II and postponing the grant of outright independence to India.
Support of this type has rendered the deal progressively less credible until now, when it is verily the proverbial albatross around the UPA government’s neck.
Singh’s attempts to court Beijing have, predictably, boomeranged. Instead of the clampdown on the Tibetan exile community protesting against the genocide in Tibet and the fact of increased trade softening up China, Singh’s cringe-inducing policy of appeasement and sucking up to President Hu Jintao has only fetched more frequent incursions by Chinese armed border police and new claims, other than on Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern Sikkim. When will Delhi learn that renewed Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkimese territory are best countered, not by craven, mealy-mouthed statements of the kind external affairs minister Pranab Mukherji mustered, but by renouncing the Indian position that Tibet is part of China.
The only bright spots in this ledger of foreign policy missteps and failures are Singh’s instincts on Pakistan. His aim of regaining for South Asia its unitary space, permitting one to “breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and have dinner in Kabul”, is just right, capturing the essential yearning of the average Indian and Pakistani or Afghan (hopefully rid of the Taliban incubus) to be at peace with each other.
Singh’s thinking about a free market in South Asia, too, has found an echo in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari’s plans for an economic-industrial zone stretching from the Gwadar port to the Indian border in Sindh to “service” the vast market in western and northern India.
The pity is that Singh in 2006 did not grab the moment and cut a deal with Pervez Musharraf, once and for all resolving the Kashmir dispute. Musharraf had all but conceded a divided Kashmir and the Line of Control as international boundary, and had sought some kind of “joint authority”, whose role could have been parsed down to virtually nothing, as a fig leaf to cover his retreat on Kashmir. With the Pakistan army on board, all political opposition would have melted away, paving the way for a genuine entente cordiale and, who knows, a shared Nobel Prize for peace! With a civilian government back in the saddle, such a deal now is less feasible.
If the record of Singh and his counterpart Shaukat Aziz in Pakistan is anything to go by, economists make bad prime ministers, primarily because they seem to lack the basic strategic good sense that professional politicians more readily display.
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org