PM's Lanka decision proves he is no longer India's sole arbiter on foreign relations
The broth of diplomacy could turn out to be a noxious concoction made of “scale of dragon; tooth of wolf; witches’ mummy; and maw and gulf” if the pot is stirred sans care and caution. Throw in a dose of dilemma, and diplomacy is certain to cause undiplomatic trauma—the current mot juste for the Indian diplomatic community’s state of mind. For the past few weeks, PM Manmohan Singh is under tremendous pressure to choose between pleasant pastures of international diplomacy and the quirky quicksands of domestic politics. He has now discovered that good diplomacy could be ‘Adder’s fork, and blind worm’s sting’ for the Congress’ political interests. His indecisiveness on participation in the CHOGM to be held in Colombo next week reflected his vulnerability. Diplomats have always deplored the influence of domestic or regional politics on international relations and the PM has been a fellow traveller. But as the countdown to general elections begins, he is more concerned about winning the election than maintaining consistent faith in traditional diplomacy. The current contours of Indian diplomacy are being defined by those expected to be the kingmakers after 2014. The magic number of 40 (including Puducherry) Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu is defining the UPA’s foreign policy. The PM’s conciliatory contortions to soothe Tamil anger over his Sri Lanka visit was quite droll, though he was bold enough to defy the BJP which demanded suspension of the Indo-Pak dialogue because of cross-border terrorism, since they are as unlikely to form a coalition in 2014 as Macbeth’s witches would brew elixir. The Indian PM has always dictated foreign policy from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, one of those who midwifed the CHOGM—a result of Nehruvian romance with international diplomacy. In the age of coalition politics, even diplomacy has become an effective instrument of votebank politics. Currently, dialogue with Pakistan is a sign of secularism, which pays rich political dividends. Boycotting CHOGM is a regional weapon to capture votes and power. Even liberal Congress ministers who otherwise would have nudged the PM to defy regional parties advised him against any adventurism fearing worse electoral humiliation in Tamil Nadu. Even the BJP, ideologically in simpatico with Sri Lanka’s ruling establishment, prefers to beat around the bush because it, too, expects one of the Tamil parties to support its PM candidate.
CHOGM wasn’t an important noting on Manmohan’s diplomatic diary in 2011. He had requested Vice-President Hamid Ansari to represent India. Though CHOGM can hardly influence international diplomacy, it has become an instrument for India to dominate dialogue; at least among smaller nations. With over a dozen other multi-nation platforms including ASEAN, G-20, BRICS and SAARC being prima donnas of South Asian diplomatic savoir-faire, CHOGM has lost its sheen and relevance since the same subjects are discussed at its venues too. Those opposed to Manmohan’s Sri Lanka visit had argued that CHOGM failed to guarantee that Sri Lanka adhered to principles when it blatantly flouted the 14-point 1971 Singapore Resolution which mandates members to ensure human rights protection. In the past, CHOGM had suspended Pakistan, Nigeria, Fiji and Zimbabwe for human rights violations. Unfortunately, none of its rich and powerful members have attacked Sri Lanka for the Tamil genocide. Most members take divergent positions at various forums, and no important multilateral issue has been resolved because of differing loyalties. Sri Lanka has been wooing the Chinese for the past few years by granting increasing access to its ports and markets. It is not merit but pure politics, which is forcing Manmohan to surrender his only fief in the government. He attended three of the last four CHOGMs. Though not officially announced yet but with all indications implying the same, by deciding to miss the last one of his tenure, he would prove he is no longer India’s sole arbiter on foreign relations.
Come November, New Delhi becomes the salubrious rendezvous point for international meetings and seminars. Post recession, New Delhi has lost its global corporate clientele. Instead, it is now hosting diplomats from countries experiencing bad weather. Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh decided to invite 140 heads of Indian Missions for a four-day brainstorming session. Prime Minister, the Commerce Minister and the National Security Advisor addressed the jamboree. Unlike in the past, the meeting was more interactive. A short 450-word summary explaining the salient features of the PM’s speech was uploaded on the MEA’s website. As usual, the PM’s address was very high on principles and low on count. Most of those who participated found serious contradictions between what he meant by effective diplomacy to protect national interests and what the Congress was pursuing on ground. At the end, they were left wondering what their job would be—selling the ruling party’s line or that of their ministry and the PM’s. But their major grouse was that though they were flown first class to India, they were handed just Rs 5,000 a day to find accommodation.
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