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Don't leave diplomacy to diplomats

January 20, 2014 11:25 IST

The perfunctory management of external affairs has left India's foreign policy establishment largely unprepared to manage the consequences of dramatic international developments, says Nitin Pai.

The geopolitical upheaval around the world over the last two years has been matched with lukewarm political stewardship of foreign policy in New Delhi. Revolutions and civil wars have begun in West Asia, East Asian powers are in a state of sharp reaction to Chinese assertiveness in the oceans to our east, creeping political realignments are ongoing in Afghanistan-Pakistan and American troops are preparing to leave the region.

Each of these developments can have profound consequences for India’s  security and economic interests --  yet India's approach towards each of these has been characterised by a lack of political direction, resulting in a foreign policy that is at best on autopilot, and at worst in abdication. Foreign policy -- and, by extension, India's geopolitical position -- has been an unlamented casualty of the United Progressive Alliance government's unhappy political predicament.

The perfunctory management of external affairs has left the foreign policy establishment largely unprepared to manage the consequences of dramatic international developments. There's only so far you can go with a holding brief. We could neither anticipate nor even play a bit role in shaping the trajectory of  US-Iran relations, despite being one of the best-placed countries to do so. India is now a distant observer of events that have the potential to upturn long-standing calculations.

If playing international statesman is tall order, what explains the bizarre manner in which the Khobragade affair played out, souring a relationship that took three governments a decade and a half to build? Yes, the episode occurred at an inopportune time -- during a change of guard both at the Indian embassy in Washington and at the US State Department officialdom concerned with India, amid the end-of-the-year holiday season. A matter that might have been resolved more quickly and with less controversy instead rocked the boat even more than when the Central Intelligence Agency spirited its mole out of New Delhi 10 years ago.

Yes, there was ample reason for India to retaliate against the violation of diplomatic norms by US authorities. There is a strategic logic for a policy of tit for tat. There is also logic -- though seldom employed by New Delhi -- in being deliberately irrational. However, in this case, our establishment overdid it to such a point that its actions were more in the nature of lashing out at US diplomats than a calibrated strategy to arrive at a desired outcome. This continued even after Devyani Khobragade arrived in India and after an American official was expelled in return.

Now that Khobragade is back, it behoves the Indian government to institute an inquiry into why the episode occurred and what measures must be taken to prevent its recurrence. Surely, an incident that caused some damage to India-US relations at both the official and popular levels cannot go un-investigated. This would have been called for even if Sangeeta Richard, the complainant, were not an Indian citizen.

Let's be clear: it is in India's interests to sustain a strong, deep and broad-based bilateral relationship with the United States. From defence to education, from exports to energy security, the US is India's most important partner. There are a number of things that the United States has that India needs for its growth and development, and some of these can be dispensed at the discretion of the US government. One example, as economist Ajit Ranade pointed out to me, is shale gas technology. The US president can determine whether and who American companies can share it with. It is not in our interest for petulance to become the currency of bilateral relations. With due apologies to Georges Clemenceau, diplomacy is too serious a matter to entrust to diplomats alone. That's why we have a Cabinet minister in charge of the ministry of external affairs.

This brings us to a larger point: that after the upcoming parliamentary elections, the new government must relook at our vapid foreign policy in the context of international developments and expectations of slower economic growth. This must, of course, involve repairing the damage done to India-US relations. There is reason to believe that, bad as the Khobragade episode was, it affected only the government officials responsible for conducting foreign policy. It will be issues like the Indian government's stand on foreign direct investment and the US government's immigration policy that will determine the substance of the relationship. These, again, have political angles that diplomats alone cannot fix.

Another political decision, at Washington's end, involves the US mending fences with an Indian politician who has a chance of becoming India's prime minister later this year. It would be tragic if controversies over visas trumped the pursuit of national interest by both countries.

The writer is co-founder and director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank. 

Nitin Pai
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