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The larger issue behind Ramesh's outburst in China

May 17, 2010 17:45 IST

The larger issue behind Jairam Ramesh outburst is about the lack of foreign policy institutionalisation in India. India doesn't really have a China policy and so various departments deem it fit to put their own spin on Indian's ties with China, writes Harsh V Pant.

Why is it that a government that got a resounding mandate from the people finds itself adrift in less than a year? One minister has tweeted himself to oblivion while another minister finds himself getting publicly flayed from a party colleague. And now we have another member of the cabinet going to China and criticising the Indian government as if he were not part of the same.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh went to Beijing to attend an international conference on climate change and instead of restricting himself to presenting the Indian government's views on the issue, he decided to take pot shots at the Union home ministry, calling the ministry's policies towards Chinese companies as 'alarmist' and 'paranoid'.

He accused the Indian government (of which he is a part) of being 'overly defensive and alarmist' in dealing with Chinese companies. According to him, the warming of ties between China and India as a consequence of their collaboration on global climate change negotiations was being harmed by the 'suspicious attitude' of the Indian security establishment.

Now there is nothing unusual in a liberal democracy for a minister or a party leader to have views that are in divergence with the official government or party stance. A diversity of opinions prevents group thinking from taking hold of the decision-making process and allows for the possibility that an organisation will be able to achieve the best possible result by taking various views into account.

But it is expected for the smooth functioning of any organisation that once a decision is reached at the party or governmental level, it will be respected by all its members. That's the essence of working in a team.

But apparently things work differently where the Congress party is concerned. The same arrangement that has allowed the Congress to present itself as a party whose top leadership is immune from the enticements of power is gradually corroding the institutional fabric of the country.

By making Sonia Gandhi the head of the party and Manmohan Singh the head of the government, the Congress has weakened the prime minister's office to an extent that top ministers can blatantly make fun of their prime minister. They can disregard prime minister's injunctions with impunity and still retain their access to the charmed circle of the Dynasty. In fact, the Cabinet ministers rather than owing allegiance to the prime minister leave no stone unturned in paying obeisance at the altar of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. After all, Rahul is the future while Singh will soon be the past, if he is not already. Digvijay Singh can train his guns at the home minister because he realises that the Gandhis are much more sympathetic to the NGO narrative of the Naxalite problem than to their home minster's prescriptions about tackling the challenge. Mani Shankar Aiyar can target anyone he likes because though he could not have the trust of the prime minster, and so had to leave the cabinet, he remains a favourite of the Gandhis.

The case of Jairam Ramesh is particularly curious. He challenged his government's policy on a foreign soil, in essence suggesting that its is the Chinese government that is right when it underscores time and again that India, not China, is responsible for the recent downward spiral in Sino-Indian ties. What a remarkable achievement for a government minister that he ends up giving ammunition to an adversary that has left no stone unturned in challenging India's rise at every possible forum.

What Ramesh was merely doing was trying to draw attention to his so-called achievement in getting China and India to work together at the Copenhagen Summit. He was so enamoured of his personal achievement that he lost sight of the larger foreign policy priorities of the country that he was supposed to be representing in China. It is Ramesh who has apparently coined the unfortunate term, Chindia, and as part of the Indian government he now seems to be considering it his duty to bring this nonsensical idea to fruition as opposed to serving Indian interests.  

One can only wonder if Ramesh had the gall to talk to his Chinese counterparts about all that China has done in recent past to hurt Indian interests.

Given China's recent record vis-a-vis India, the Indian government has every right to be extremely cautious about Chinese investments in areas sensitive for national security. Moreover, there seems to be hardly any evidence to suggest that India has been discriminating against Chinese companies. The relationship between China and India is not merely about climate change and Sino-Indian cooperation in Copenhagen has not dissuaded China to actively work against Indian interests on various other fronts.

Either Ramesh has no understanding of Sino-Indian relations despite writing a book on the subject. Or else he has credible evidence that Chinese companies are facing discrimination against India. In the first case, he would be better served by keeping mum on such a crucial foreign policy issue. And in the second, he should have tried to influence the government's policy expressing his views in the Cabinet discussions, not in China.

There is a larger issue about the lack of foreign policy institutionalisation in India that once again comes to the fore, India doesn't really have a China policy and so various departments deem it fit to put their own spin on Indian's ties with China. The government's inability to articulate a coherent narrative about China has allowed things to come to such a pass. The sooner this is rectified, the less embarrassed the Indian government will be because of the indiscretions of its members.

Harsh V Pant