Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

A foreign policy manifesto for the next government

Political parties seem united in their poor comprehension of foreign policy

Now that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) manifesto is finally out, comparisons with those of the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are inevitable. There is one feat that the three most talked about political parties in this election have managed with equal ineptitude: providing a focused foreign policy vision.

Objectives range from the utopian: “India’s foreign policy would focus on establishing friendly and cordial relationships with all countries, on equal terms" (AAP), to the anachronistic: “The magnetic power of India has always been in its ancient wisdom and heritage, elucidating principles like harmony and equity. This continues to be equally relevant to the world today in today’s times of soft power" (BJP), and the outrightly overreaching: “The Indian National Congress will strive to mobilize support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council" (UNSC).

A world in which national interests and capabilities differ does not allow for “cordial relationships" with “all" countries on “equal terms", with or without “ancient wisdom". Given the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) poor performance in managing India’s relations with key neighbouring states during its 10-year rule, it will be difficult for India to find friends who will support its bid for permanent membership of the UNSC. A government which has avoided taking strong positions in international relations should reassess if it can even cope with the requirements of holding a permanent UNSC seat.

After a decade of mismanaged foreign policy, a new government will have its hands full with steering India’s choices in South Asia, one of the most difficult diplomatic spots in the world. So what should the new government do? The starting point of fixing any problem is to recognize it. For India under the UPA, it was a case of poor options in the wrong places.

From the Indian perspective, South Asia can be divided into three categories. One, those countries that matter and with which relations have gone sour. These are Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Then come those nations that are important and where Indian diplomacy and political leadership can improve ties quickly. Bangladesh falls in this class. Finally come those countries where it is desirable to have good relations but where the effort needed to fix things is out of line with the benefits that may accrue. Nepal and Myanmar fall in this class.

UPA’s failures need to be understood in the context of the first set of countries. The next government’s efforts need to be focused on them.

Of these, India can at best manage to keep relations afloat with Pakistan. A few weeks earlier, one “doable" with Pakistan came a cropper. Islamabad has shot down India’s hope for most favoured nation status.

Pakistan’s internal politics is in flux. The government in Islamabad is led by a party that is considered close to the Taliban. The general mood there is one of coming to a deal with the Taliban and wariness with the US. India should be prepared for hostility from Pakistan.

If misplaced friendship needs to be ended with Pakistan, then a sincere dialogue with Colombo should be among the first foreign policy priorities of the new government. Interminable waffling, heedless needling and total lack of strategic watchfulness have marked India’s relations with the country. Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksashould be invited to Delhi for a round of frank talks. India’s concerns with respect to Chinese involvement in the country should be spelled out openly. And depending on Sri Lanka’s choices, the future course should be plotted with firmness and determination.

Maldives is another country where increased Chinese influence should worry India. The scrapping of the Male International Airport project which was to be developed by GMR Group was a setback, but not an insurmountable problem. Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, whose first foreign trip after assuming office in November 2013 was to India, has made it amply clear that while the relationship with China is “very close" the one with India is “far more precious". India’s new leader should not let go of the opportunity to start a more meaningful and beneficial partnership with the island nation.

The one country that the new prime minister should visit first and with a set of deals in his hands and not merely a bouquet of flowers is Bangladesh. All that India needs to do is to sign on the dotted line for river water sharing with Dhaka. In return, transit agreements for linking the Northeast, better trade and possibly even sharing of hydrocarbon resources will become a possibility. India has a willing partner in Sheikh Hasina. Hopefully the new prime minister will understand this.

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