INDIA SPECIAL/BALI AND BEYOND
Why Singh is on a foreign policy overdrive
World leaders line up for a photograph at the East Asian Summit and ASEAN Summit in Bali, November 19. In the run-up to this event, the Indian government undertook a major ‘course correction,’ especially regarding nuclear liability rules for foreign companies
The past three months will stand out probably as the most ‘kinetic’ period in India’s diplomacy. Never before has an Indian prime minister undertaken such
a great amount of travel, crisscrossing time zones and dashing breathlessly between regions of the world so far apart,
as Manmohan Singh has done.
Of course, India has had prime ministers with hands-on
approach to foreign affairs — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira
Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao. But Singh outpaces them.
His tour calendar has been staggering — Bangladesh and
New York in September; South Africa in October; France,
the Maldives, Indonesia and Singapore in November. And
now he is preparing to leave for Russia.
This hectic activity coincides with a period of thickening
gloom. Yet, his outburst of pro-activism lacks any relation
to finding solution to the accumulating problems in the
Indian life — rampant public corruption, Telengana,
Koodankulam, slowing down of the economy, rise in petroleum prices and cost of living, the Lok Pal Bill, etc.
At the end of these activities, the country gained nothing.
Equally, was it absolutely necessary for the prime minister
to spend so much of time and energy on a portfolio handled
by a full-fledged cabinet minister and two ministers of
The visit to Bangladesh could have been counted as the
most significant prime ministerial initiative. The visit was
long overdue, and India had a rare opportunity to put the
bilateral relationship on a forward footing with Sheikh
Hasina in charge in Dhaka.
Hasina’s positive moves in addressing our core concerns
regarding cross-border militancy needed to be reciprocated, and at any rate, Bangladesh is a key country in the
region with which India should have a close relationship in
the interests of regional security and stability.
Yet, ultimately, Singh’s visit raised high expectations in
Dhaka, which couldn’t be fulfilled. The prime minister’s
aides handled the visit clumsily and hastily, lacking in sensitivity in carrying along a strong regional leader like West
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The failure in
planning left behind the impression that the visit’s hidden
agenda was to do image-building for the prime minister at
a time when his political stock was plummeting. A terrific
opportunity has been missed to launch the relationship
with Bangladesh onto an upward trajectory.
What followed the Bangladesh mishap was even more
curious. Despite persistent recommendations by the Indian
mission to the United Nations in New York, the prime min-
ister was originally lukewarm about addressing the
General Assembly session. Then, one day, he abruptly
changed his mind and decided he would go, after all.
But Cannes turned out to be a bizarre affair. The host of
the G-20, French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not care to
extend to the prime minister the usual courtesy of a meeting. The summit exclusively focused on the Euro zone crisis and India had hardly any role in it. Why the prime minister chose to holiday in Cannes boggles the mind.
Cannes was followed by the visit to Bali where the prime
minister had a great opportunity to focus on India’s relations with the US. But it also raised some basic questions as
to the broad framework of India’s foreign policy in the contemporary world scenario.
It is no great secret that the swagger had gone out of the
US-India strategic cooperation in the 12-month period
since President Barack Obama’s visit to India last
In the run-up to the Bali
visit, the Indian government
undertook a major ‘course
correction.’ On the eve of the
visit, the government notified
the rules regarding nuclear
liability for foreign companies, which have effectively
reduced the liability to a first
five-year period, which virtually means doing away with
the liability clause of the
Indian legislation. Obviously, this has been done in close
consultation with the US and the new rules seem to satisfy
Washington and the American nuclear industry.
The ‘policy correction’ proved to be wide-ranging and led
to a virtual reversal of policies: A robust ‘Look East’ policy
that takes India uncomfortably close to a containment
strategy toward China; identifying with the US effort to
create an Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe-type regional security architecture for Central and
South Asia; support for the US’s New Silk Road project
aimed at rollback of Russian and Chinese influence in the
region; ambivalence over the imperative need of a neutral
Afghanistan; cogitation over the offer by the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization to cooperate over the US’s missile
defense system program; cooling down toward the