Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee last week and actually asked her what her thoughts were on settling the Teesta river dispute with Bangladesh. “Hmmm, I’ll let you know,” the lady is believed to have replied, pointing out that a one-man expert group had been recently set up to go into the pros and cons of a possible solution.
Imagine, this is the level of creative thinking coming out of the Congress party these days, as it deals with its allies on key matters of foreign policy. Why blame the prime minister alone, though; the whole party seems to be self-destructing slowly, unable to defend itself from either an onslaught of reason or an attack of humour.
So when the Bangladesh foreign minister asked Foreign Minister S M Krishna, also last week, and in the most diplomatic way possible, what plans he had on the Teesta front, Mr Krishna replied that consensus-making was afoot. Luckily, she didn’t crack a joke at India’s expense; otherwise, taking a cue from the goings-on in Parliament recently, it might just have been expunged from the record.
Certainly, there can be no foreign policy of value if the present state of affairs carries on much longer. The neighbourhood looks askance at India’s almost-complete lack of interest in what’s happening in these countries. A new prime minister is about to be named in Nepal, Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress; but few are interested in Delhi. Dipu Moni has already made the resolution of the Teesta dispute the yardstick for better relations with India; but a yawning silence reigns. In the Maldives, India doesn’t want to influence the outcome of the situation; it would much prefer it if the warring parties resolve the problem themselves.
As things fall apart, India is truly lucky that a few good men, bureaucrats all, are holding the fort in its all-important neighbourhood: Jayant Prasad in Kathmandu, Gautam Mukhopadhyay in Kabul, Ashok Kantha in Colombo, Pavan Varma in Thimphu, Pankaj Saran in Dhaka (although he’s just gone there). Sharat Sabharwal in Islamabad will soon retire — but, it is said, not before Manmohan Singh makes that trip to Pakistan.
Overseeing his brood is the understated Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, believed to be fighting pitched battles against the creeping politicisation of the Foreign Office. As the centre ceases to hold, it seems as if IFS officers are not beyond lobbying politicians to put in a word on their behalf. The practice is most rampant at the time of ambassadorial postings, one round of which was just completed a few weeks ago.
The man missing in action is the foreign minister himself. That is why the go-to man for all neighbourhood policy remains Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. He still keeps in touch with all the political permutations and combinations in Nepal and directly speaks to National Security Adviser S S Menon about it. As for Bangladesh, it was Mukherjee’s visit last week to Dhaka that paved the way for Dipu Moni’s trip to Delhi a few days later. You can be sure that nothing in the India-Bangladesh relationship can take place without Pranabda’s blessings.
The question remains: where is the prime minister? Why can’t he once again weave the magic that we saw during those nail-biting months of the Indo-US nuclear deal? Manmohan Singh’s hand was much less obvious in the economic opening up of the India-Pakistan relationship, but you can be sure that he had a big hand in the breakthroughs brought about by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and his former commerce secretary Rahul Khullar.
So why can’t the prime minister be more forthright, the way he used to be? In 2008, Manmohan Singh wagered his government on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It forced the Congress party to fall in line, and it survived to fight another day in the 2009 elections.
Is Bangladesh any less important than the US? Action on the Teesta will force Mamata Banerjee to back off. She may want early elections, but she knows the rest of the party doesn’t. Several of her Trinamool Congress MPs privately believe that a just solution to the Teesta dispute in which both Bengal and Bangladesh can gain can easily be found.
So here’s a foreign policy agenda for the prime minister: give Mamata Banerjee an ultimatum on the Teesta waters matter. Insist that Home Minister P Chidambaram take his intelligence agencies to task for not streamlining processes that make visas and other entry processes much more simpler. (Learn how the Americans have managed to get their act together after 9/11.) Get Anand Sharma to drop all duties and non-tariff barriers for all neighbouring countries, including Pakistan. Get Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal to get the phone lines and internet links back up with Pakistan (Indians and Pakistanis can’t use their cell phones or laptops in each other’s countries) and reduce calling charges to Afghanistan (at Rs 15 per minute, they’re almost double those to the US).
In other words, if the prime minister can get the neighbourhood right, he will have the right to a legacy when he gives over in 2014. If not, blaming Mrs Gandhi for not giving him the political space to act will cut no ice with the rest of us.