1 January 2014

Not handled with care

Hardeep S Puri 
Posted online: Wed Jan 01 2014

In 2013, India failed to manage important bilateral relationships, or to communicate the rationale of foreign policy initiatives.

Was 2013 the annus horribilis for Indian foreign policy? Foreign policy formulation and implementation by definition require meticulous planning, attention to detail and clinical and mature assessments. Some of these qualities were not in full evidence during the course of the year.

The events of 2013 provide pointers to a few trends. First, the management of the more important bilateral relationships, particularly those in our immediate neighbourhood and with the United States, requires extra effort and skilful handling not only with the countries concerned but also with domestic constituencies, including the media and state governments. The required margin of persuasion with domestic constituents does not appear to have been used in 2013. In many cases, there was a failure to communicate the rationale of policy initiatives, even when these were sound. The management of our relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka is a case in point. In the case of the former, the failure to persuade domestic constituencies, particularly the chief minister of West Bengal, will prove to be costly, in both the short and medium terms. In Sri Lanka’s case, we failed to encourage Colombo to move away from majoritarianism and be more responsive to and ensure Tamil interests.

With Pakistan, the year started badly. The barbaric beheading of an Indian soldier inside Indian territory in January, the murder of Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani prison in April-May and the killing of five Indian soldiers by Pakistani special forces in August brought relations to a boil. Firing along the Line of Control almost threatened the 10-year-old ceasefire. Domestic passions were inflamed and provided just the opportunity some members of our strategic community required to indulge in Pakistan-bashing. There was little or no evidence that the new political dispensation in Pakistan either wished to turn a new leaf or had the clout to rein in the terror machine. The need to keep channels of communication open is not an issue. What was and should continue to be the decisive determinant is timing. The prime minister should have been discouraged from meeting his counterpart in New York. Strong political opposition domestically, particularly from the BJP, scaled down expectations.

In many respects, the events of 2013 forcefully drove home to the domestic audience in India that our approach to China has been somewhat complacent. A new political leadership in Beijing, established following the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, tested our resolve. The physical demonstration of this was the three-week-long incursion by Chinese troops and the stand-off in Ladakh during April. This and continuing incursions elsewhere again generated concern in Parliament and across the political spectrum. There were demands for a more clinical assessment. Equally, India needs to accelerate the modernisation of the infrastructure on the border on our side and scaling-up of our defence preparedness.

The bilateral relationship that seemed most in trouble is the one with the US. Much of the euphoria, following the September 2008 prime ministerial visit to Washington, had already evaporated in 2012. The much heralded Indo-US civil nuclear deal, for which the PM, at one stage, appeared ready to even risk the survival of his government, became the source of bickering and mutual recrimination. The Americans accused us of not delivering on the nuclear liability law. Commercial contracting for its implementation even five years after the passage of the legislation in the US, such that there is, is not worth recalling. Billions of dollars of defence purchases by us from the US did not prevent the state department from withholding clearance for the humiliation of an Indian diplomat on trumped up charges, resulting in her physical arrest, handcuffing and strip search. The few limited steps we took to introduce reciprocity in the grant of privileges, immunities and courtesies helped focus attention on the asymmetric nature of the relationship.

Relations between the US and India are far too important to be jeopardised by any one single act, set of incidents or misguided individual. It is unlikely, however, given the widespread attention that the mistreatment of the Indian diplomat has received in India, that this can be done without the dignity of the person in question being restored.

There are also important lessons for those who are easily impressed by the US espousal of and insistence on human rights. Clearly, the US may need to undertake some introspection. It based its approach to visa, in respect of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, on allegations that have now turned out to be based on fabrication of evidence and a litany of lies. The clean chit from the Indian judicial system should at the very least result in some introspection.

Nothing serves to demonstrate our desire for the best of relations with the US more than our response to the Snowden affair. Contrast this with the reaction of Brazil and the picture is complete. In similarly placed circumstances, for us, it was business-as-usual. The Brazilians took the unprecedented step of President Dilma Rousseff calling off her visit to Washington, the only state visit scheduled by the US for 2013. Boeing also lost a $4 billion military deal on account of the Snowden revelations.

The day after Devyani Khobragade was subjected to unprecedented humiliation, a colleague called to relate the story of Sergei Lavrov, long-serving Russian permanent representative to the UN in New York and now Russian foreign minister. His official car was towed away by the New York traffic police. It required one telephone call to Moscow. After six American cars went missing, Lavrov got his car back with a note of apology.

Interpretations of the Vienna Conventions are best left to lawyers who, for an attractive amount, could make out an equally compelling case on both sides.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The writer, a retired diplomat, was India’s permanent representative to the UN.

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