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T N Ninan: A Singh doctrine?

Manmohan Singh broke the economic mould in 1991. He may be trying to do the same thing with foreign policy now

T N Ninan  |  New Delhi 

Manmohan Singh broke the economic mould in 1991. He may be trying to do the same thing with foreign policy. As with economic policy till Dr Singh came along, the country’s diplomacy too has remained in a basically Nehruvian mould — with an emphasis on principles, on right and wrong, on Third World solidarity. It came to a stage where other countries began to view Indian negotiating positions in multilateral fora as all “take” and no “give”. Dr Singh seems inclined to change that.

The first step was an overt alignment with the United States; the only time when Dr Singh put his prime ministership on the line was when it looked as though the Congress leadership would not back him on the nuclear deal. Now there are three new straws in the wind. The first concerns Pakistan. Dr Singh declared that, like India, Pakistan was a victim of terrorism, and then de-linked the issue of the bilateral dialogue from terrorism, in the joint statement issued at Sharm al-Sheikh. Dr Singh is apparently convinced that India should be lending a helping hand to Pakistan as it battles its own demons. This is despite the strong feelings across the country in the wake of the attacks on Mumbai a year ago, and despite the Congress distancing itself from the Sharm al-Sheikh statement.

The second straw is visible in the positions that Jairam Ramesh has taken on climate change. For weeks, it wasn’t clear whether the Prime Minister favoured his environment minister’s more malleable approaches, or his own special envoy Shyam Saran’s more traditional articulation of India’s interests. Now it is clear that Mr Ramesh has the prime minister’s backing. Once again, there have been protests. The Opposition walked out of Parliament, and India’s official negotiators for the Copenhagen meeting threatened to go on strike. But the Ramesh position stands.

The third straw is only partly visible, but should be easier to spot when the global trade talks gain momentum. The initial signal was the replacement of Kamal Nath with Anand Sharma, as commerce minister. It is no secret that Mr Nath had a contentious relationship with the US trade representative, and Mr Sharma’s brief was to adopt a softer line. The style has been less abrasive, and the substance too might be different.

Take the three together, and a plausible hypothesis is that the prime minister wants to get away from principles-based diplomacy (which is the tactic of the weak), and do what the stronger players do: parley on the basis of give and take, irrespective of who is right or wrong. There is also a willingness to go the extra mile in order to get agreement, and an apparent belief that Third Worldism/non-alignment/G-77 will lead the country into a cul de sac. What India wants is not going to be given by the poor countries of the world, it has to be given by the rich; one has to get into the tent and negotiate with them, not fulminate from the outside.

There are two dangers in this approach. One is that the prime minister runs ahead of domestic public opinion, and risks the ground being cut from under his feet — as happened after Sharm al-Sheikh. The second is that, having decided to parley, he finds there is no “take” in return for his “give” — a not unlikely scenario. Either way, the time has come for Dr Singh to make a foreign policy statement, spelling out what might be a Manmohan Singh doctrine—because while much economic reform could be done by stealth, as it were, foreign policy changes cannot. A proper domestic debate is essential if foreign policy is to be steered in a different direction.

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First Published: Sat, December 12 2009. 00:55 IST