In a policy slipstream

From end-January, when the five-state Assembly elections commenced, till the counting day on March 6, while the nation waited and guessed, the external environment mutated.

Maldives had a President nudged out at gun point, albeit sheathed in political betrayal; an Israeli diplomatic vehicle was blown up in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi by elements, particularly after the Bangkok fiasco, that appeared to have Iranian antecedents; the Indian Coast Guard intercepted an Italian vessel for shooting dead two Indian fishermen beyond Indian territorial waters, thus leading to contested jurisdiction and nationalistic finger-pointing by India; and as the situation deteriorated in Syria, India voted for a UN Security Council resolution that China and Russia eventually vetoed. India was acting impetuously, sometimes due to domestic electoral compulsions or “ideological reflexes”. The question arose of the impact on Indian policy of the electoral Ides of March.
The Congress was hoping for a government in Lucknow that needed its support, led by the Samajwadi Party (SP) or even the BSP. That would have ensured it the support of the members of Parliament of either group, numbering around 20, in lieu of the mercurial UPA ally Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamul Congress leader. The defeat of the Congress in Punjab and Goa and the emergence of Akhilesh Yadav, the new youth icon who has re-invented the SP and thus managed a decisive verdict, has ushered in a nightmare scenario for the Congress. Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, the Trinamul representative in the Cabinet, philosophised on the likelihood of a mid-term general election. His retraction was followed by Ms Banerjee deciding to attend Mr Yadav’s coronation in Lucknow and the Badal clan’s resurrection in Punjab. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s leeway for policy innovation in domestic or external areas stands constrained. In the Budget, will the government continue its profligacy and populism, preparing thus for the 2013 elections to the three BJP-held states i.e. Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, or seek financial stabilisation by reining in the fiscal deficit that for the Centre and the states, consolidated, now touches eight per cent of the GDP?
Take India’s immediate neighbourhood. A distracted Pakistani government wrestles its Supreme Court to save its Prime Minister from contempt charges while resisting writing to the Swiss government to re-open cases against President Zardari. Pakistani Parliament’s committee on national security meets next week to finalise fresh terms of engagement with the US, rumoured to seek major concessions on the Afghan solution that the US is working out. Despite the announcement, finally, of a negative list of Indian exports to Pakistan and thus de facto most-favoured-nation treatment, hurdles still persist. Prime Ministers in trouble at home tend to gamble on success abroad, as did Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 with his Sri Lanka military intervention following the Bofors scandal and his electoral collapse in Haryana. Will Dr Singh attempt a Pakistan gambit?
A restive Ms Banerjee is unlikely to concede any ground on the water issues with Bangladesh, be it Farakka or Teesta, thus stymieing the transit concessions that India seeks in return. On Sri Lanka, Dr Singh has already been cautioned by Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa that India must support the fresh resolution at the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva, on the maltreatment of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. The Maldivian situation gets more complicated, particularly with the return of former President Gayoom, and the constitutional uncertainty in Nepal persists. A weakened Delhi can hardly craft an effective response to gathering clouds in its neighbourhood.
Three presidential elections this year in major countries are in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has already been elected amidst controversy; in France, where a beleaguered Nicholas Sarkozy may just benefit from the multi-billion dollar fighter jet deal granted by India; and in the US where President Barack Obama awaits the naming of his Republican opponent, as well as a recovering economy, in his campaign for a second term.
The last election matters the most as India-US relations are being tested by India’s policy towards Iran. Following the state election results a Delhi journalist was picked up for complicity in the Israeli car bombing, though whispers had been heard earlier of an Iranian hand. Utilising India as a battleground to settle Iran-Israel enmity was condemnable in itself, but using an Indian, if true, is highly objectionable. Meanwhile, a 70-member Indian business delegation is in Iran tasked with boosting Indian exports and taking advantage of Iran agreeing to receive 45 per cent of the payment for oil in Indian rupees. The US has not reacted as yet, and due to Iran’s amenability to dialogue India may well escape censure.
At a function on February 28 to release a new study on Non-Alignment in the 21st century attended by the serving national security adviser S.S. Menon and his two predecessors, Brajesh Mishra and M.K. Narayanan, the incumbent opined that national consensus in foreign policy was neither attainable nor desirable. Mr Mishra contested this, recalling that the NDA government did not send troops to Iraq in 2003, despite the US’ request for them, as national consensus was absent on the issue. Post-March 6 the price for ignoring this lesson may not merely be raised decibel levels in Parliament but the very demise of the government. The time for conducting policy shifts by stealth is over.
Moreover, as viewed from abroad, tactical opportunism, policy dithering or navigating without a larger vision, debases a nation’s image and its perceived potential. In the post-March 6 context, the UPA, particularly the Congress and its young leadership, have a choice before them. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his latest book, Strategic Vision, postulates that a state riding the crest of history is driven by the momentum of its rise to climb the summit of power. Conversely, a demoralised ruling party can slide off that crest if it continues to wallow in self-pity, only looking to the next state elections as an answer to its woes. The great Persian poet Hafez put it well:
Let not the pious judge the meek Each for his own deeds will speak.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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