Foreign policy will not be among the glorious legacies that Manmohan Singh will leave behind. But that will not be for want of trying, although on many occasions he blundered badly. Ties with Pakistan remain strained, since he has been repeatedly outsmarted
Coming at the tail end of his almost decade-long prime ministerial tenure, Mr Manmohan Singh’s trip to the US for the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly should, ideally, have been about consolidating, if not celebrating, his foreign policy legacy. Instead, it turned out to be a last-ditch attempt to salvage his image. Be it his lackluster speech to the General Assembly or his meetings with US President Barack Obama, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, each one of these was essentially just an exercise in damage control. Here’s how:
The Singh-Sharif Meet: That this one was even held in the first place is a little victory for Mr Singh. The meeting was not confirmed until the very last minute, and exactly a day after it was finalized a terror attack in Jammu that claimed nearly a dozen lives, put tremendous pressure on the Prime Minister to call off the talk. Such incidents have been happening with increased frequency since Mr Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Pakistan earlier this year. Earlier, we had the brutal beheading of two Indian soldiers in January. Since then, there has continued ceasefire violations along the Line of Control — and most in New Delhi believed that the time was not right for a high-level summit. But having still committed himself to the New York meet, Mr Singh was right in not caving to forces that wanted to disrupt the peace process. Unfortunately, this is pretty much the only positive take-away from the Singh-Sharif meet — and few are possibly more disappointed about this than Mr Singh himself.
Having spent his entire nine years in office nurturing the fond hope that he will be the one to script a landmark India-Pakistan peace deal, sometimes even at the cost of India’s security interests, in the final analysis Mr Singh has been able to do next to nothing. This is despite the fact that he inherited Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s legacy of vastly improved bilateral ties between the two countries. He clearly failed to carry it forward. In this context, the New York meeting was little more than a pointless conciliatory gesture from India that made the Pakistani Prime Minister (who came to power promising better ties with New Delhi) look good, and gave the latter the opportunity to bid Mr Singh farewell.
At best, it was also an excuse for some diplomatic amusement — and no, this is not a reference to Mr Sharif’s PJ about village women, but that he, of all people, would whine about India taking up Pakistan’s shenanigans with the US when it was he who had pleaded for Washington to intervene during the Kargil conflict.
The Singh-Obama Meet: This one came at a time when the India-US bilateral has slowed down significantly, having initially raced forth into the 21st century. The decade between 1998 and 2008 saw the India-US relationship come into its own with the world’s largest democracy forging a strong sense of fellowship with the world’s most powerful democracy and acknowledging each other as natural partners. For the first time, Washington’s India policy was de-hyphenated from Pakistan while the landmark nuclear deal literally energized the India-US bilateral. In Washington, President George W Bush had used all his political capital to push through that deal while in New Delhi, Prime Minister Singh put his Government at stake. But, if in those years, India and the US were like teenagers in the throes of first love, as one analyst put it, post-2008 their relationship seems to have matured and settled into a humdrum routine. And so, ambitious plans for bilateral cooperation have got stuck in the bureaucratic maze that is as much Delhi as Washington — think of the nuclear liability clause, the tightening of the visa regime and restrictive trade practices. Unfortunately neither Mr Singh, who has already been reduced to a lame-duck Prime Minister, nor Mr Obama, whose Government is shutting down, was currently in a position to resolve any of these issues, even though now would have been the time to give the India-US bilateral that extra push so that it doesn’t plateau before reaching its full potential. And so, the nuclear negotiations, for one, have been left for a later date.
Still, the meeting was not as much of a failure as some had predicted it would be. President Obama, for instance, deserves credit for being graceful enough to spare Mr Singh the litany of complaints against Indian trade practices that American companies have thrown at him. Similarly, Prime Minister Singh, often derided for being soft on terror, deserves a word in praise for highlighting the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, particularly the support that organizations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba receive from state actors in that country. Indeed, Mr Singh’s description of Pakistan as the “epicenter of terror” took many by surprise. Also, talks on defense co-operation between Ashton Carter and Shiv Shankar Menon have been positive, with the US offering a deal to India that, it claims, it has not offered to its Nato allies even.
The Singh-Hasina Meet: Though largely ignored in the international and the national media, this was possibly the most important of Mr Singh’s engagement, given that it was the only meeting that had the potential of immediate impact. While the Prime Minister’s discussions with Prime Minister Sharif and President Obama would have done little to change the ground realities of either the India-Pakistan or the India-US bilateral, his talks with Ms Hasina was crucial to India-Bangladesh relations, which are at a crossroads. This bilateral too has evolved significantly in the recent past, thanks primarily to Ms Hasina who has left no stone unturned to address India’s primary concerns regarding terror fugitives hiding in Bangladesh. But Mr Singh and his Government have failed to put the deliverables from their end — the land border agreement and the Teesta water deal — on the table. This has left Ms Hasina, who is bracing for a tough re-election battle later this year, in an uncomfortable position. The Prime Minister has promised to push these measures through during the Winter Session of Parliament. In the meantime, the progress made in the power-sharing deal — the two leaders will jointly inaugurate a power transmission system on October 5 — is good diplomacy. It will hopefully placate to some extent an otherwise very disappointed Ms Hasina.