Unsettled at home
The talks between the defence secretaries of India and Pakistan were held on June 11-12 in Islamabad sans the usual hoopla. The joint statement at the end was remarkable for its stoic acceptance that while a resolution of the Siachen issue was desirable, there was little immediate prospect for it. Defence minister A.K. Antony, the masterly status quoist, had in fact lowered expectations even as the team left. The new Army Chief, Gen. Bikram Singh, whose actions are being watched closely by his predecessor assessing a public role post-retirement, could hardly begin his term withdrawing troops from Saltoro Ridge.
Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, speaking last week at the National Defence University, Islamabad, said that “a country that is stable domestically is better positioned to achieve its foreign policy objectives.” He also took credit for normalising trade relations with India and resuming what he termed “full dialogue”. While voicing mere truisms, he was, in fact, putting his finger on a key determinant of India-Pakistan relations i.e. the clock of domestic politics in both countries. When they synchronise and on either side there are political leaders with the will, the vision and the political mandate to boldly re-examine old hurts, misunderstandings and competing versions of history, normalisation of relations picks up pace. The minute both or either move off that clock, the pace flags.
For six months now, while the Zardari government was being squeezed between unravelling US-Pakistan relations, a hostile judiciary and a sulking Army, the Manmohan Singh government had been mired in sleaze and its financial management in the hands of a finance minister stuck in anachronistic economic solutions and a longing to be President, causing the slow strangulation of the India story. The rupee slid, market confidence flagged and Bharat bandhs were organised to protest a petrol price hike that was first defended, then partially rolled back even as the international price of oil had been receding. The high drama over the selection of the Congress Party’s presidential candidate has left the UPA’s solidarity in tatters, casting a huge shadow over its longevity, or at the very least, its ability to function. In Pakistan, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary himself is at the receiving end with charges of graft against his pampered son, by a businessman considered close to President Zardari. This is a fresh twist to the jostling between the elected leadership, the judiciary and the Army. It is thus not surprising that the Indian home secretary had returned empty-handed from Pakistan, clearly implying that the Pakistani Army had re-linked any concession on trade or people-to-people contacts with countervailing Indian flexibility on Siachen.
Dr Singh was airborne no sooner than the perfidy of Mulayam Singh Yadav had cleared the Congress candidate’s path for presidency. Ironically at the Los Cabos G-20 summit in Mexico on June 18-19, focusing on the euro zone crisis, all leaders are accompanied by their finance ministers. The debate in Mexico will be on how to bridge the gap between those in Europe, like Germany, wanting structural reform and austerity and the indebted nations plus even France wanting growth and fresh funds. Ideally Dr Singh should have made Pranab Mukherjee resign before departure, overhauled the finance ministry and signalled change in economic management. This would have given him the moral edge to contribute to the G-20 debate, considering that the Indian economy’s mishandling in recent past has negated the PM’s core competence, which was finance. On the other hand, with Mamata Banerjee seething and the government leaning on untrustworthy new companions the rekindling of the reform process can be discounted. The Congress may have won the presidential battle, but at the cost of fatally enfeebling its alliance and its government’s international respectability.
Take the case of the telecom sector. At the
G-20 summit Dr Singh will meet the leaders of Russia and the UK, whose companies are affected by the Supreme Court cancelling their licences. In the meanwhile, the UAE, with a sovereign fund under the ADIA (Abu Dhabi Investment Authority) exceeding $500 billion, has withdrawn from further investing in India after Etisalat’s experience. Thus his days when US President Barack Obama flatteringly called him a guru and he was lionised at the G-20 meetings may be over. Both the international financial agenda and India’s perceived ability to address it may now be mere mirages.
Dr Singh then flies to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for what is being dubbed, on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Summit, the Earth Summit, on June 20-22. The agenda is sustainable development. Like the millennium development goals of 2000, there may now be sustainable development goals. That meeting will be skipped by Mr Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British PM David Cameron. Dr Singh will return in time for Mr Mukherjee filing his nomination on June 25. The date is significant astrologically as Saturn becomes direct the next morning. Ideally, even Dr Singh could have skipped the Earth Summit, returned to relieve the finance minister and shake up his Council of Ministers.
The unavoidable conclusion is that whether in the neighbourhood or afar there is no alternative to fixing the Indian economy, as that conditions the Indian ability to shape the outcomes in the Saarc region or have its voice respected in fora beyond. Like in a Shakespearian tragedy, as the G-20 leaders converge on the Mexican resort, Hurricane Carlotta roars in the background in a display of pathetic fallacy. The real storm may be the Greek election results, which will arrive as the leaders meet. Of greater relevance to Dr Singh will be the rain not yet arriving — the delayed onset of the Indian monsoon.
The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry