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Issue No.: 560 | February 2014
 

Manmohan Singh and India’s Foreign Policy, 2004-2014 A Performance Review

B. Ramesh Babu
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Foreign policy is conditioned by domestic support it is able to win and sustain, not by personal equations with foreign leaders. The Prime Minister seems to have missed the import of this fundamental reality in his stewardship of the nation’s foreign policy.

As the Sonia-Singh rule of the country draws to its end, it is time to assess the performance of the UPA-I and UPA-II Governments at home and abroad. At the outset, it is fair to say that the popular perception of the duopoly is worse than the actual record of the decade under review. Economic slowdown, inflation, jobless growth, scandals by the dozen, failure to curb corruption, policy paralysis, vote bank politics, ineptitude, etc. have been the commonly used adjectives to describe the working of the Government at the Centre, more so during the UPA-II rule. While it is difficult to apportion the blame between the centre of power without responsibility (Sonia) and the holder of authority without power (Manmohan Singh), it is the latter that cut the sorry figure at home. However, the Prime Minister enjoyed a relatively more free hand in his stewardship of the country’s foreign policy, which is the focus of this interim analysis.

At the very outset it must be stated that Manmohan Singh’s innings in external affairs compares favourably with that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in longevity and also in importance to the country.  According to one estimate, Singh had spent about one-tenth of his near ten years abroad; travelled over one million kilometers; and made 72 official visits all over the world so far. It is interesting to note that the top leaders of most countries succumb to the lure of foreign horizons when things get tough at home. Very recently our PM said that he hopes to visit Pakistan before he leaves the office. A few months are left before he hands over the baton to his successor and Singh’s dream may still come true!!

Before going to the specifics, it may not be out of place to offer a general observation regarding the Manmohan Singh era abroad. Foreign policy is conditioned by domestic support it is able to win and sustain, not by personal equations with foreign leaders. The Prime Minister seems to have missed the import of this fundamental reality in his stewardship of the nation’s foreign policy. This dimension became evident in his third (and ostensibly the last) press conference held in New Delhi on January 3, 2014. He rightly claimed that the US-India Nuclear Deal was the most notable achievement of his tenure as the PM. Though much of the ground work was done earlier under the NDA government,   former President Bush and Manmohan Singh deserve high praise in this context.** They successfully managed the long drawn and tortuous task of getting the Deal through the formidable political jungles at home in the two vociferous democracies and the international institutional barriers (IAEA and NSG). When years of persuading and cajoling the Left parties to accept the DEAL as the best possible deal under the circumstances, he put his Government on the block and prevailed in the end. The "notes for votes” spectacle in the floor of the Lok Sabha before winning the vote of confidence is a sordid story, which cannot be told here!

But, the Nuclear Liability Law passed by the Parliament subsequently undid everything. Manmohan Singh could not stop it or get it diluted enough to make it attractive to nuclear reactor industry in America and other countries (including France and Russia). The whole country was not willing to compromise on the issue of the security and welfare of the people. The immense tragedy of Bhopal was on the minds of the people. Irrespective of the merits of the Liability Law, the fact remains that the PM failed to win the critically needed "domestic support” for his most coveted achievement in external affairs. Some leaders from his own party were not very supportive of dilution of the Law, it must be added.

Similar deficiency of over emphasis on personal equation skewed PM’s handling of the country’s relations with Pakistan. In fact such an approach was made worse by his keen desire to visit the country of his birth, which was revealed once again during the press conference of January third. He said: "I would like to go to Pakistan [as] I was born in a village which is now part of Pakistan… I have still not given up hopes of going to Pakistan before I leave office.” This kind of misplaced sentimentalism influenced his approach to Pakistan more than once. During his election campaign, Nawaz Sheriff reiterated the vital need of peace and good relations with India. Soon after winning the elections he declared that he would go to India in search of peace even if he is not invited! He invited Manmohan Singh to come over and grace his swearing-in ceremony! Our PM was more than inclined to go. But, as the Head of the Government, he could not pack his bags and go off to Pakistan just like that! However, soon afterwards he insisted on meeting Nawaz Sheriff on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. Popular opinion in the country, all political parties, and top officials of the MEA were against it. Such Summit meetings were bound to fail unless there is an agreed agenda and a lot of advance work is done on the specifics of the issues to be addressed, it was pointed out. But the PM insisted on meeting his counterpart in New York and he had his way.

Then at the meeting he was vehement in condemning Pakistan for failing to fulfill its commitment to apprehend the culprits of the Mumbai carnage. Later Manmohan Singh went on to meet President Obama and complained against Pakistani terrorism and so on. Soon after that Nawaz Sheriff made fun of the PM by comparing his entreaties to that of "a village woman baring her woes to all and sundry!” Naturally, this was stoutly and officially denied immediately. Our PM did not come off well at this round of dealing with Pakistan. He should not have met Nawaz Sheriff in such haste!

Manmohan Singh made a more serious mistake on an earlier encounter with Pakistan. At the meeting in Egypt he was cornered into agreeing to a review of Indian "activities” in Baluchistan. Pakistan had been accusing India of extending clandestine support to Baluchi disaffection against Islamabad. Since we have nothing to hide, our PM naively thought that there was nothing wrong if somebody wants to look into the matter. He had to face a lot of flak at home after his return from the failed Summit.

The January 3rd press conference is noteworthy for another significant revelation regarding the Kashmir issue. Manmohan Singh publicly acknowledged that "at one time it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight. However, in Pakistan General Mushraff had to make way for a different set of [leaders]. I think that led to the process not moving properly.” This story of the missed opportunity on Kashmir during the Mushraff regime had been making rounds for a long while.  However, till date neither the contours of what was agreed nor the constituents of the alleged ‘magic’ solution to the long festering Kashmir issue are in the public domain. Naturally, people and parties are insisting that they have a right to know the details. But, it is not wise to reveal the contents of diplomatic negotiations that ended unsuccessfully. That would lead to a lot of posturing by all concerned, which would jeopardize the chances of agreement in the future.

Fortunately, missed opportunities and over-emphasis on perceived personal equations did not figure prominently in most other foreign policy initiatives of Manmohan Singh in dealing with bilateral relations with other countries, global challenges, the UN reforms, and regional international organizations, etc. These and other relevant issues will be discussed in the next article in the of light India’s foreign policy goals and guiding principles as the PM elaborated in his address to the Annual Conclave of Indian Ambassadors/High Commissioners abroad in New Delhi early in November last year.

Dr. RAMESH BABU is a specialist in International Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hyderabad, 2013-2014. Formerly he was the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Professor of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai.
Email: brameshbabu08@gmail.com


Those interested in understanding the intricacies of the Nuclear Deal may refer to the special issue the author brought out after holding a national seminar on the subject. "India-US Nuclear Deal: Hurdle or Gateway?”, ICFAI Journal of Governance and Public Policy, Vol.2 No.1 (March 2007).
 
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