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Why is the PM on a foreign policy overdrive?

November 24, 2011 15:32 IST

Indian foreign policy is listlessly meandering. At times, it stands still lost in thoughts and then it dashes forward -- and the next thing you know, it begins dashing backward. The pantomime seems to be happening with no greater logic than that it creates the illusion of a flurry of activity -- and our PM feels good and dynamic, says M K Bhadrakumar.

The past three months will stand out probably as the most 'kinetic' period in India's diplomacy. Never before has an Indian prime minister undertaken such a great amount of air travel, crisscrossing time zones and dashing breathlessly between regions of the world so far apart, as Manmohan Singh has done.

Of course, India has had prime ministers with hands-on approach to foreign affairs -- Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao. But Manmohan Singh outpaces them.

His tour calendar has been staggering -- Bangladesh and New York in September; South Africa in October; France, Maldives, Indonesia and Singapore in November. And now he is apparently preparing to leave for Russia.

This hectic activity coincides with a period of thickening gloom. Yet, the prime minister's outburst of pro-activism lacks any relation to finding a solution to the accumulating problems in the national life -- rampant public corruption, Telangana, Koodankulam, slowing down of the economy, rise in petroleum prices and cost of living, the Lokpal Bill, etc.

At the end of these frenetic activities, the country has gained nothing. Equally, was it absolutely necessary for the prime minister to spend so much of time and energy on a portfolio handled by a full-fledged cabinet minister and two ministers of state?

The visit to Bangladesh could have been counted as a most significant prime ministerial initiative. The visit was long overdue and India had a rare opportunity to put the bilateral relationship on a forward footing with Sheikh Hasina in charge in Dhaka.

Hasina's positive moves in addressing our core concerns regarding cross-border militancy needed to be reciprocated and at any rate, Bangladesh is a key country in the region with which India should have a close relationship in the interests of regional security and stability.

Yet, ultimately, the PM's visit raised high expectations in Dhaka, which couldn't be fulfilled. The PM's aides handled the visit clumsily and hastily, lacking in sensitivity in carrying along a strong regional leader like Mamata Bannerjee. The failure in planning left behind the impression that the visit's hidden agenda was to do image-building for the PM at a time when his political stock was plummeting.

A terrific opportunity has been missed to launch the relationship with Bangladesh onto an upward trajectory.

What followed the Bangladesh mishap was even more curious. Despite persistent recommendations by the Indian mission to the United Nations in New York, the PM was originally lukewarm about addressing the general assembly session. Then, one day, he abruptly changed his mind and decided he would go, after all.

Some say personal considerations prevailed, while others say Anna Hazare prompted the PM to quit India for a while. But other foreign dignitaries pleaded last-minute scheduling difficulties and PM found himself hanging about in New York with an awful lot of free time in hand with nothing worthwhile to do by way of purposive official business.

Certainly, his speech at the general assembly could as well have been made by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna.

In comparison, his visit to South Africa, which soon followed, had one purpose. India pays attention to IBSA where it feels comfortable to defining its identity as an emerging power, in comparison with BRICS [Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa].

India feels lonesome within BRICS -- loneliness that comes out of being a straggler. Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa have a far more definitive outlook on the imperatives of a multi-polar world than India. India pays lip service to multilateralism, but is trapped in its 'unipolar predicament'.

India keeps a platinum relationship with the United States and Washington of course views BRICS with distaste.

Whereas, IBSA provides a leadership role for India, given its experience in global politics and its much-vaunted 'influence' and 'weight' by virtue of its population and economy.

Thus, although no concrete gains were made out of the IBSA summit, the PM's participation was useful to keep the pot boiling, so to speak.

Again, if PM's visit to Male to attend the SAARC summit served a purpose, his peregrination to Cannes was a shameless extravaganza. The visit to Male was justifiable if only for the sake of his meeting with Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani, despite SAARC's lacklustre functioning. 

But Cannes turned out to be a bizarre affair. The host of the G-20, French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not care to extend to PM the usual courtesy of a meeting. The summit exclusively focused on the Eurozone crisis and India had hardly any role in it. Why PM chose to holiday in Cannes boggles the mind.

Cannes was followed by the visit to Bali where PM had a great opportunity to focus on India's relations with the United States. But it also raises some basic questions as to the broad framework of India's foreign policy in the contemporary world scenario.

It is no great secret that the swagger had gone out of the US-India strategic cooperation in the 12-month period since US President Barack Obama came to India last November. The core issue is that the US-India nuclear deal of 2008 has failed to 'work'.

In the run-up to the Bali visit, the government undertook a major 'course correction'. On the eve of the visit, government notified the rules regarding nuclear liability for foreign companies, which have effectively reduced the liability to a first five-year period, which virtually means doing away with the liability clause of the Indian legislation. Obviously, this has been done in close consultation with the US and the new rules seem to satisfy Washington and American nuclear industry.

The policy correction proved to be wide-ranging and led to a virtual reversal of policies: a robust "Look East" policy that takes India uncomfortably close to a containment strategy toward China; identifying with the US effort to create an OSCE-type regional security architecture for Central and South Asia; support for the US's New Silk Road project aimed at rollback of Russian and Chinese influence in the region; ambivalence over the imperative need of a neutral Afghanistan; cogitation over the offer by NATO to cooperate over the US's missile defence system programme; cooling down toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; and, a string of massive arms purchases from the US.

Unsurprisingly, Washington's response has been enthusiastic. Barack Obama consented to grant an unscheduled meeting to PM in Bali. In sum, PM 'delivered'.

It is now Obama's turn to 'deliver'. India holds high hopes that it wouldn't ever again vacate the UN Security Council membership that it secured in January 2011. India counts on the US to help it get inducted as a permanent member of the UN Security Council by end-2012 at the latest.

Conceivably, this will be Obama's primary obligation to India. Alongside comes India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other technology control regimes. All in all, India expects the US to deliver on the US promise to make India a first-class global player.

Of course, all this is all way past Obama's capacity to deliver. Clearly, PM is on a foreign-policy overdrive.

He is rachetting up the anti-China rhetoric and is cozying up to the US. Yet, Sino-US interdependency has reached a high threshold and India no longer enjoys premium as 'counterweight' to China. China is the only country that can help regenerate the American economy. The US knows India lacks heft in the Asia-Pacific.

The rest is rhetoric. But then, why this wasteful rhetoric, why this overdrive and hype? Why create tensions in the relationship with China?

The answer lies somewhere else – in the PM's own sphere of expertise, namely, India's economy.

The home truth is that with all the hullabaloo of PM being an economic wizard, Indian economy is entering a dismal phase. Growth is slowing down; inflation is touching an intolerable level; chronic poverty and destitution is rising; farmers' suicides crossed the quarter million mark; Indian rupee is plunging to its lowest point ever; balance of payments situation is becoming acute; and, foreign investors are calling back their money.

In sum, 'Manmohanomics' is in shambles. Amidst the decaying rubble, PM looks no more Mr. Clean, either. The Indian middle class is no longer enamoured of him; the Sensex is at a 2-year low.  And PM has never been a crowd-puller for the ruling party. The main opposition party BJP senses blood. The overall scenario is so highly depressing that anyone would want to run away from it.

The PM is wandering into the foreign-policy realm as a convenient excursion, as an escapist enterprise. Tensions may rise in ties with China, but no great harm done. Apres moi le deluge! (After me, the deluge!)

Indian foreign policy is listlessly meandering. At times, it stands still lost in thoughts and then it dashes forward -- and the next thing you know, it begins dashing backward. The pantomime seems to be happening with no greater logic than that it creates the illusion of a flurry of activity -- and our PM feels good and dynamic

M K Bhadrakumar