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Splendid Isolation


2014 will present the biggest challenge to India’s foreign policy increasingly isolated in the region and hobbled by lack of political direction. Ranjit Bhushan reports
RANJIT BHUSHAN | Issue Dated: January 19, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Splendid Isolation |

You are as good in conducting foreign policy as your internal circumstances allow it to be. While democracies have to work around their diplomacy keeping local politics in view, what happened to India’s external affairs trajectory in 2013 and the fresh challenges it presents in 2014, must surely rank as one of the stiffest tests before its mandarins and policy makers. In its immediate neighbourhood New Delhi stands virtually isolated, unable to help out the cause of Bangladesh’s Hasina Wajed-led government; its role in influencing events in Sri Lanka have been marginalized due to regional factors and there is a gnawing fear in New Delhi’s diplomatic community that as democracy gets more and more federalized, their job will become trickier. With Pakistan, a Manmohan-Nawaz Sharif détente never materialized in spite of best efforts and despite a meeting between the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) from the two countries, the LoC continues to remain one of the tensest and hotly contested borders in the world.

As the year drew to a close, the Devyani Khobragade case rocked ties between New Delhi and Washington, the likes of which has not been witnessed since the US send its Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean in 1971 in a show of strength to zap India, seemingly siding with Pakistan in the Bangladesh war.

There is a good reason for their worries. The country’s regional satraps are increasingly flexing their muscles and more than ever before in its six-decade existence as an independent country, India’s foreign policy is getting increasingly captive to the demands of local politics. The two big initiatives with Bangladesh — the Teesta river water-sharing pact and the land boundary agreement (LBA) - which would have helped to ease pressure on the Hasina-led Awami league government, currently under siege by the right wing Jammat-e-Islami, have practically being stymied. Feisty Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee has declined to sign on the Teesta river agreement negotiated before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka in September, 2011. While New Delhi could move unilaterally on the issue – foreign relations are strictly out of the purview of chief ministers – it has preferred not to do so.

The Bengal chief minister has taken the view that the pact adversely affected north Bengal. She has alleged that negotiations had been conducted without taking her into confidence.

While the flow of Teesta waters into Bangladesh has not stopped, Dhaka is keen to make an issue of it. Bangladesh's foreign minister Dipu Moni, on a visit to India last year said as much: “On Teesta there is a huge expectation in Bangladesh. I think if India cannot deliver on that expectation, our relations will take a huge hit. I’m not sure our relationship can afford it.” A friendlier warning could not be issued. What is perhaps a bigger obstacle is New Delhi’s failure to complete the LBA. The updated agreement, signed between Singh and Hasina was regarded as historic: for the first time, the new boundary had resolved the vexed problem of enclaves and adverse possessions. But the government which had to pass a constitutional amendment that would make the new boundary line official, has failed to do so. For many sessions now, the UPA government has not been able to push this through in Parliament. Sadly, the opposition has come not just from Kolkata but the principle opposition party, the BJP.

India’s case in Sri Lanka is even thinner. After the Sri Lankan army killed LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and defeated his forces in 2008, Colombo wanted New Delhi to participate in what amounted to its virtual nation building: invest, set up industries and prop up its southern neighbour still reeling under the impact of a bloody civil war. According to official figures, things started well and during 2008-10, close to $215 million of FDI to Sri Lanka came from India.

But just when it looked like the engagement was getting serious, the US-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution against the war and post-war crimes in Sri Lanka cropped up. That put India between a rock and hard place. It was loath to go against a resolution moved by Washington, an ally with whom equations were ever on the mend despite the slackening pace of the civil-military nuclear deal. What seriously hobbled India was the Tamil Nadu government’s grandstanding on the subject of fellow Tamils killed in Sri Lanka and its choleric insistence that India teach Sri Lanka a lesson.

And that is what happened. India’s communique at the US resolution was not exactly designed to promote friendly relations. It expressed concerned with “The inadequate progress by Sri Lanka in fulfilling its commitment” relating “To missing persons, detainees, disappearances and abductions… return of private lands and withdrawal of security forces from the civilian domain in the Northern Province.” To muddy the waters further, India reiterated its call for “An independent and credible investigation into allegations of human rights violations and loss of civilian lives.”
The affect has been two pronged: not only has India got into the bad books of long standing ally Sri Lanka but the DMK too pulled out of the UPA. But India’s loss has been China’s gain – Colombo would rather deal with a super power like China than hobnob with an old friend which has suddenly developed a passion for promoting human rights. The cases therefore are a study in contrast: Chinese telecom major Huawei is the biggest investor in Sri Lanka and Beijing has been given rights to build the Hambantota Development Zone, which involves an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery and an international airport. China has also got into offshore oil exploration and modernising the country's railways, its power plants and highways. In addition, it is now the biggest military supplier to the Sri Lankan armed forces, a position once held by India.

In contrast, Indians have been leaden-footed. Manmohan Singh, who was scheduled to attend the three-day Colombo Commonwealth Summit in November 2013, was compelled to call off his plans because of Tamil Nadu’s internal competitive politics. Against the backdrop of a unanimous resolution passed by the state assembly - the second in recent times - demanding a total boycott of CHOGM by India, it was left to external affairs minister Salman Khurshid to do the honours there. For good measure Khurshid had to make it clear that India’s participation at the CHOGM summit was not in any way dilution of its stand on Tamils in Sri Lanka. “India remains committed to the welfare of Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamils and would have to remain engaged with Sri Lanka in ‘enlightened national interest’,” Khurshid told reporters, adding he was ‘perplexed’ at the demand that India boycott the CHOGM summit.

Former foreign secretary in the Atal Behari Vayajpee government Kanwal Sibal believes that the country’s foreign policy is being increasingly determined by narrow political interests rather than national interest. “We tasted this unpleasant phenomenon when Mamata Banerjee's government obstructed the Teesta accord with Bangladesh, much to the political discomfiture of Sheikh Hasina's government, which had boldly acted to suppress anti-Indian insurgent activity in Bangladesh but saw India unable to ink a settlement negotiated with New Delhi. That episode raised questions about the central government exercising its constitutional prerogative to formulate Indian foreign policy without buckling to emotionally charged and ethnically driven regional politics and sentiments. The prime minister's procrastination about attending CHOGM, the conflicting views of cabinet ministers and the ruling party's dithering have further exposed the political and institutional weaknesses that have crept into governance. Such decisions, however difficult, should not be postponed to the last minute under visible pressure, as that degrades the government nationally and internationally,’’ Sibal wrote in a column.

In such a scenario how is India expected to fare when US and western troops leave Afghanistan this year? During his December 2013 visit to India, Afghanistan president Ahmed Karzai, who has always stressed on a wide ranging defence tie up with India, has sought greater cooperation from New Delhi, which in turn is a little wary of Kabul’s offensive shopping list. According to well placed sources, Karzai’s specific list includes 150 battle tanks, field guns, howitzers and one squadron of attack helicopters.

New Delhi, despite the highs stakes in that country, remains chary of providing assistance outside the realm of infrastructure and social programmes – in other words its soft power. India has a $2 billion assistance programme for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and a lot of it has been possible due to the presence of international and US forces present on ground. In addition, India also has to contend with Pakistan’s hostility to its presence across the Durand Line. Security specialists in Islamabad – specially its spy agency ISI - have accused New delhi of spreading its sphere of influence in Pakistan’s neighbourhood in an attempt to encircle them.

Additionally, the US believes that India will use its influence with Karzai – an alumna of the Himachal Pradesh University – to sign on the United States-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). James Dobbins, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan said that Karzai “Highly respects and has good relations with the Indian government.” According to foreign affairs writer Ankit Panda, President Barak Obama had broached the issue of India assisting the United States in reigning Karzai in when he met Manmohan Singh in Washington D.C. last September.

Even if relations with larger neighbours in south Asia appeared to get entangled in a series of non-tractable issues, tiny Maldives, an old Indian ally in the Indian Ocean appeared to be moving closer to India’s arch rival China, much to the consternation of New Delhi. In November 1988 Rajiv Gandhi's government had sent in its forces to thwart an attempt by 80 armed militants of the Peoples' Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) from staging a coup in Maldives. The stormtroopers had infiltrated capital Male earlier in the guise of tourists before the attacking party took control of several government buildings. But before they could make a snatch at President Abdul Gayoom, who was literally running from house to house, a 1,600 strong Indian contingent easily crushed the coup, captured the mercenaries and restored Gayoom  to office, earning it much goodwill in the region. Things have changed considerably since then.

The main bone of contention between the two countries are linked directly to case of Indian construction major GMR, which was engaged by the Maldives government to construct the Ibrahim Nasir international airport in Male. Observers believe politics was at the root of the Maldivian decision to terminate GMR’s contract. New Delhi says it is well within its rights to demand regulations which guarantee Indian investments in the Maldives, besides cooperation on security issues. According to experts, resolving the GMR issue hold the key to restoring normalcy in India-Maldives relations.

The year-long tension has also been triggered by India’s concern over growing proximity between Maldives and China in a number of strategic areas including security. RAW has warned that Marao Island which was leased by Maldives to China in 1999 for maritime traffic management was also being used by the Chinese to monitor Indian and US warships in the Indian Ocean and had the potential to develop a submarine base there.

Experts however say that sign of a thaw in the relationship between the two sides was evident during the recent New Delhi visit of Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen. On his first visit to India after assuming office, Yameen pointedly told journalists that while their relationship with China was ‘very close’, Maldives ties with India are ‘far more precious’.

Wrote former foreign secretary Salman Haider, who had served as head of the ministry of external affairs during IK Gujral’s tenure: “While its (India’s) role has enlarged, its voice remains muffled. Foreign policy has become predictable, reactive, low key. A more assured and assertive India needs to be rediscovered. The first requirement, then, is a vision of where the country sees itself and where it is going. Foreign policy principles and priorities need updating and effective projection. This is no easy task: the essential ideas must come from the top and bear the stamp of the leader.’’

That is the crucial question. Has it happened in India’s case? Has Manmohan Singh, besieged by a never-ending tale of scams from within UPA 2, been in control of foreign policy? Has the elevation of a super foreign secretary in the form of the national security adviser over and above the officially designated one, concentrated too much power in the hands of one person?

Surely there has been no guidance from the political leadership of the day on the conduct of external relations, neck deep in scams and busy doling out social welfare programmes as UPA 2 have been.

To be sure, the prime minister has tried to move on improving ties with Pakistan but one of the riddles which remains unanswered is why he did not visit India’s most troubled neighbour despite several invitations from Islamabad? Some measures of extending the olive branch have found critics.
Singh’s move to send special envoy Satish Lambah to Pakistan to meet prime minister designate Nawaz Sharief after the elections there has been met with a frosty response from sections of the Indian diplomatic community. “A special envoy was sent to Pakistan just when Sharief had formally taken charge. What was the undue haste,’’ questions former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan Ashok Parthasarthi.

But the Indian prime minister in the last few months of his premiership maintains that he “Would very much like to go to Pakistan. I was born in a village which is now part of west Punjab but as prime minister of the country I should go to visit Pakistan when conditions are appropriate to achieve solid results.’’

He even hinted that India and Pakistan were on the verge of a historic agreement on Jammu and Kashmir. “I have tried to improve relations with all our neighbours to the best of my ability and at one time it appeared that an important breakthrough was in sight. Events in Pakistan, for example, that General Pervez Musharraf had to make way for a different set up. I think that led to the process not moving further,’’ the usually reticent prime minister told journalists at a rare press conference held last week.

Clearly, 2014 has begun on a challenging note for Indian foreign policy. Right in its hair is the  ill-treatment of a senior Indian diplomat by US authorities in New York, in contravention of the Vienna Convention for consular matters, which has snowballed into an unprecedented crisis in bilateral relations. Even though the prime minister has played down the incident, public opinion in India remains incensed. According to one expert, the diplomatic fracas has the potential to upset the only major achievement that Singh can be credited with in his decade-long foreign policy initiatives: improving ties with the US by signing the civil-military nuclear deal. And that can only be considered bad news.

 Sino-Indian relations, despite the two prime ministers visiting each other in 2013, remain uneasy. The Depsang intrusion in Ladakh by the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) has raised Indian apprehensions about a resurgent and aggressive China and rekindled memories of 1962, coincidentally marking 50 years of that border conflict.

Singh’s visit to China resulted in the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) being signed between the two sides but it is hardly a guarantee against any future intrusion along the 3,225 kilometre undemarcated Line of Actual Control (LoAC). Clearly New Delhi has a role charted out for her this year, a role that could change further, depending on who assumes office after the General Elections mid-year.

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Posted By: Rakesh | Assam | January 13th 2014 | 23:01
India needs to be more proactive in formulating its foreign policy. The foreign policy should be free from political interest and focus solely on national interest.

Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017