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The case of the missing minister

November 15, 2010 14:01 IST
Take a look at the pictures of Barack Obama's visit to India. You can see Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, Indian Ambassador to the US Meera Shankar and National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon. Can you spot Foreign Minister S M Krishna anywhere? 

Although Krishna was to have accompanied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the airport to receive President Obama, it was minister-in-waiting Salman Khurshid who went instead. Krishna was not at the head table at the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet in the Mughal Gardens. The chief justice of India and the vice president were seated there but not the foreign minister. In fact, in most ceremonial functions during the Obama trip, the vice president got bigger play than the foreign minister. This would never have happened if, say, Pranab Mukherjee had been the external affairs minister.

The epitome of correctness and politeness, if S M Krishna had been missing only in the protocol action, no one would have noticed. The problem is he's hardly to be seen – or heard – anywhere.

The self-deprecating foreign minister had to endure some rough handling in Pakistan in July this year, the first meeting of the two foreign ministers after the Mumbai attacks. But it was Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi who appeared to have gained the upper hand. He told reporters that Krishna and his delegation had not been ready for dialogue and had repeatedly interrupted the talks to take phone calls from Delhi. During the press conference, he also insulted an Indian bureaucrat for suggesting David Headley, the man at the centre of the planning of the Mumbai attacks, had something to do with the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan. Krishna erred on the side of politeness and said nothing in defence of India's home secretary, but returned to Delhi and there, safe on home ground, let it rip, somewhat pointlessly.

It is a good thing that Krishna trusts the bureaucracy. India has a very able set of negotiators. They pretty much run the foreign office, even if their efforts provoked the US president to remark that India should behave its size. But surely a foreign minister has to insinuate something of his own personality, his philosophy in foreign policy? Especially when India has had such forceful personalities as foreign ministers as Jaswant Singh and Pranab Mukherjee (who famously told then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who was trying to persuade him to take a hard line on Burma: "Madam, India is not in the business of exporting democracy"). Jaswant Singh, in his languid style, thanked the British from the bottom of his heart for the "one helicopter sortie" they undertook to rescue Indian soldiers in Sierra Leone during a blue helmet UN Peacekeeping  expedition, after the UK was excessively voluble about its help to India.

To be fair to him, Krishna's junior minister Shashi Tharoor dug himself into a hole entirely of his own making, and the foreign minister neither contributed to it nor used it to cut his flamboyant junior to size. But it would have been so nice to have a foreign minister who would occasionally come up with a set-down or a witty repartee or a flash of temper, the way K Natwar Singh could do (about a visiting US secretary of state who shall remain nameless Natwar Singh remarked: "Not only does he look like an undertaker, he also appears to need one").

With all the foreign policy challenges around India – Nepal rapidly descending from a tragedy to a farce, Sri Lanka dangerously close to a democratic dictatorship and Pakistan just being itself – you would have imagined that Krishna would have used his politician's instincts to get under the skin of some of these problems. Being chief minister of Karnataka isn't easy. There are castes to handle, factions to appease and rivals to eliminate. Krishna managed all that without turning a hair (though he did lose rather a lot of it).  He outsourced the dirty works department to able lieutenants. Lingayats in Karnataka got short shrift during his regime and have never returned to the Congress since. And Karnataka's political class has made extensive investments in sponge iron plants in China. A few weeks ago, BJP leader K S Eswarappa made the astonishing and no doubt baseless charge – using papers and receipts – that a close relative of Krishna's had bankrolled the operation to split the BJP and had hosted the dissidents in Chennai. Krishna's son-in-law runs a coffee company headquartered in Chennai. S M Krishna would be as – if not more – comfortable in Bengaluru as in South Block. So would his son-in-law.

Fortified with all this, it is rather hard to understand why Krishna isn't taking more of a hand in running the foreign office. In Karnataka he was not known for working hard or bothering about details but no one could say he was colourless. The BJP, however weak, was in the Opposition and Krishna did manage to stave it off. In South Block he is a shadow of his former self.

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi