Prime Minister opportunistically engaged flawed leaders and regressed into NAM rhetoric during his UN visit, says K C Singh.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his entourage left India for New York on September 21, hoping for some respite from the 2G spectrum imbroglio, unrelentingly shadowing the government since the arrest of former telecom minister A Raja seven months ago.
Post-departure the controversy, if anything, intensified with the latest leaks to the press bringing the Home Minster P Chidambaram's role, during his term as finance minister, into play.
It was against this backdrop of an expanding stain of malfeasance that PM addressed the UN General Assembly on September 24. Though not expected to set on fire the East river, that flows past the UN headquarters, the PM was required to use it for agenda setting, attending as he did the UN after a gap of three years.
Additionally India is now a member of the UN Security Council till end 2012 and thus its views on contemporary issues are closely watched. There was also the hype over the rise of emerging countries like India, Brazil and China, necessitating them to demonstrate that not only their economic profile has evolved but they have developed a new international idiom, more apposite to contemporary dilemmas.
The PM's address was disappointing on a number of counts. He firstly seemed to regress to the jargon that dominated Indian rhetoric at the UN during the Non-Aligned Movement heyday. He began as an economist, observing that globalisation has 'coalesced together' (a poor conjunction of the word and its meaning), economic, social and political events, resulting in disruption. Let us examine this postulate.
Politically the only new force wrestling with withered and oppressive ruling structures in the Arab world is the fresh force of Arab Spring. If anything those events are still underway but clearly their impact can only be positive. Why should the leader of independent and democratic India fear what Joseph Alois Schumpeter (external link) dubs constructive destruction?
Within India the new force has been the voice of Anna Hazare against corruption that has perhaps inconvenienced the Indian government but globalisation has hardly been its cause as Anna's methodology is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, though perhaps feeding today into the global angst against mal-governance.
The PM then went on to justify through circumlocutory reasoning that Indian abstention on UNSC resolution 1973 on Libya, authorising a 'No-Fly Zone', and permitting all measures to protect civilians was right. Subsequent developments in Libya have shown the Indian judgement to have been flawed both on the basis of realpolitik, as Muammar Gaddafi could not survive, as well as the emerging principle of a global Responsibility to Protect when a massacre of citizens, even by its own government, is imminent.
The PM expounded a rule of law that forbade intervention in the internal affairs of any country. He then added that "people in all countries have a right to choose their own destiny and decide their own future." His speech writer needs to be quizzed whether that right will be available to the people of Libya now or Gaddafi would have given it, having not done so for 42 years.
Similarly are the minority Shia rulers of Syria going to allow those rights to their non-Shia majority, who are willing to die for their cause? Even more pertinently, has he forgotten the Indian intervention to save the Bengalis in East Pakistan in 1971, resulting in the birth of Bangladesh, which he has just visited.
The real issue confronting the UNGA was the Palestinian statehood application that finally was tabled despite President Barack Obama's public opposition to it in his opening day address at the UNGA, mindful of the Jewish goodwill that he needs for his re-election in 2012. The PM dismissed the issue by a one line of support for the Palestinian cause. French President Nicholas Sarkozy used almost three quarters of his address to explore a way out of the conundrum.
India, desirous of a permanent seat in the UNSC, had nothing concrete to offer or specific to say. The erstwhile special envoy of the prime minster on West Asia, Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan, has also given up his endeavours to obtain for India space for positive engagement
The PM's peroration then decried a deficit in global governance. The need to reform the Bretton Woods institutions, which in simple English means giving more voting power to the emerging economies, was broadly hinted. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, in Washington for the International Monetary Fund meeting, got distracted by the 2G leaks in Delhi of a letter allegedly written by him to prime minister apportioning blame to then Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Perhaps rectifying the flaws in domestic governance would serve India better than tilting at loftier objectives, which would in any case be more advantageous to China.
The portions of PM's speech on the developing world were appropriate, except they were couched in language that India has been using since independence, reminiscent of his days as the secretary general of the South-South Commission from 1987. The reference to the India-Africa Forum Summit was the most appropriate as the African countries form the most cohesive Indian support group and without whom no reform of international institutions is possible.
A decision taken in 2006 to contest the post of the Commonwealth secretary general's post was based on the need to consolidate relations with African countries. Unfortunately, the issue was first derailed by Shashi Tharoor inter-posing himself for the post of UN secretary general, for which the chances of success for any Indian were remote, and when revived got taken by a close friend of the Gandhi family, thus robbing it of a closer co-ordination with South Block.
The most pathetic was PM's interaction with President M Ahmadinejad of Iran. Ignored for six years, the PM's advisers have suddenly found virtue in engaging him when he had just finished embarrassing Iran and offending the US by questioning 9/11 on its tenth anniversary in the very city where it happened. How would India have reacted if a foreign leader had said the same about 26/11 while visiting India and then the US President was photographed hugging him.
Additionally, he is today a degraded leader, cut down to size by the Supreme Leader. His rivals, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hussein Moussavi, have just been allowed a visit home after their long detention and Hashmi Rafsanjani has resurfaced after a long gap. Panic over the developments in Afghanistan is now making Iran appear more alluring than it was when the PM was smitten by his US interlocutors.
The price that Iran will extract to make up for old hurts will be high and the returns unpredictable as Iran is no longer the nation that India knew in the period 1996-2001, when the Taliban was for both countries a shared threat.
Thus the leader of India, reportedly shirking contact with the very Diaspora that lobbied for his India-US civil nuclear deal in US, opportunistically engaging flawed leaders and regressing into NAM rhetoric could just well have not gone to the UN a fourth year running. At any rate, his escape has been transitory as he returns to an inflamed corruption issue, which his finance minister hopes to escape by retiring for Puja to Kolkata. The cross is for the PM to carry.
The remarks of William Gladstone, when criticising the foreign policy, as conducted by his rival in British politics of the 19th century Benjamin Disraeli, are appropriate, "I say, sir, that in the congress of the great powers, the voice of England has not been heard in unison with the institutions, the history and the character of England." Nor, I am afraid has that of India at the 66th session of the UNGA.
K C Singh is former secretary, ministry of external affairs.