State of the Union - 30 days of U-turns
The National Democratic Alliance-Bharatiya Janata Party government has completed a month in office. Given that foreign policy initiatives were the flavour of the first 30 days, their examination is in order. An analysis of the government’s inertia on rescuing Indians trapped in Iraq would require a separate piece altogether.
A host of leaders from the region were witness to the birth of the new dispensation. The invitation to the neighbourhood lends itself to the assessment that India’s near abroad is a focus area of this government. However, the choice of invitees laid bare the rather limited worldview of the new government because over the years India’s role has not been limited to the Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) but extends deep into the new construct called Indo-Pacific. Even with regard to the region what was missing was the articulation of a Monroe Doctrine that could possibly distinguish the approach of the new government from the previous one.
Beyond the atmospherics what did the invites really yield? Afghan President Hamid Karzai is winding down his presidency and triple transitions are at play in Afghanistan. With allegations of electoral fraud vitiating the presidential election process, the new order may take a while to emerge. If the recent events in Iraq are any indicator, Afghanistan may descend into a cesspool of violence. Has New Delhi even contemplated establishing relationships with the emerging players in Afghanistan beyond the embassy level interactions during their manifesto/campaign deliberations? Would they contemplate a boots on the ground response if requested for by Afghanistan or an international organisation/coalition at some stage? Are they inclined to, if required, an expansion of the terms of the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership signed in October 2011. There seems to be no indication of a gameplan on Afghanistan as yet.
Moving onto Pakistan, the BJP’s approach towards India’s most contentious relationship has been marked by muscular rhetoric ever since its inception. However, the Vajpayee years saw an abandonment of the rhetoric. The invitation to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is perhaps indicative of this turnaround once again. The attack on the Indian consulate in Heart, hours after the invite, was a shot across the bows allegedly by the permanent establishment in Pakistan underscoring that they continue to call the shots on Pakistan’s India policy.
However, the most disturbing signal this invitation has sent to the people who matter in the Pakistani power calculus and their non-state instrumentalities is that whatever may have been the bombast before assuming office, the new order is now more than willing to play ball on their terms. In other words, terror and talks can go hand in hand. This about turn by the government would have serious implications for India in the coming days.
Contrast this with the United Progressive Alliance’s approach. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not visit Pakistan even once in 10 years as no substantive breakthrough on prickly issues with Pakistan happened. Ironically, the UPA was blamed for being pusillanimous on Pakistan.
Turning attention East, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina chose to send the Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangshad. There are allegedly serious questions about the legitimacy of Sheikh Hasina’s government and if history is any guide Bangladesh looks set for a rocky time ahead. Again, with regard to Bangladesh, has their been any re-thinking within the BJP on the land boundary question or the Teesta waters issue which are extremely germane from Bangladesh’s point of view? There is no indication of any rethink on these questions. Paradoxically, there seems to be backtracking on the BJP’s pet electoral issue — illegal infiltration from Bangladesh despite ostensible attempts to tinker with the visa regime.
Moving South, the government of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has been under fire from a number of international organisations for alleged war crimes during the final days of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This evokes very strong sentiments in Tamil Nadu.
The invitation to Mr Rajapakse — without any assertion as to where the new government stands on the question of the rights of the Tamil minority — brought into question and raised legitimate apprehensions about India’s continuing commitment to the very concept of human rights, especially given the fact that the BJP’s approach towards the minorities in India is not the most glorious chapter in its history.
Turning to Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, our relationship with all these three countries is extremely critical given the growing Chinese influence in the region.
Again there seems to be no clue as to whether the government is even cognisant of this concern, what to talk about giving any positive indications to these countries which would give them the confidence that India would continue to be a countervailing influence to the pervasive embrace of the Chinese dragon. Even during the Prime Minister’s maiden foreign visit to Bhutan the stress seemed to be more on communicating in Hindi rather than discerning the great balancing act that Bhutan has successfully been doing between China and India.
Coming to China, the visit of foreign minister Wang Yi was again heavy on friendly rhetoric and short on substance. The new regime seemed to suffer from a bout of selective amnesia insofar as its ostensible aggressiveness on border intrusions and the question of Arunachal Pradesh being an inalienable part of India were concerned. Except for an ambiguous one-liner — that we expect China to respect a one-India policy — there was no firm message to the Chinese leadership.
It can thus be inferred that the foreign policy outings of the new government during its first month were more in the nature of a meet and greet exercise rather than a calibrated attempt at defining a fresh policy outlook if at all any does exist or is under contemplation. If it cogitates that continuity in foreign policy is in national interest, then it must acknowledge the correctness of the UPA’s approach upfront.
Unfortunately for India there was no shortage of U-turns in the first 30 days, coupled with the complete absence of “the big idea” that would underpin India’s interaction with the world. As Sylvia Plath reminisced in the Ennui, “Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe, designing futures where nothing will occur.”
The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister.
The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle