If Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has done one thing right in his second consecutive term in power amidst a series of debacles, it is to enhance engagement with South Asian countries, which largely means its neighbors, and the developing world, while toning down the excessive fondness for the United States of America.
Singh is currently in Myanmar on a visit that is likely to focus on strengthening bilateral ties between the two countries through stronger trade and investment links, development of border areas and greater connectivity. He is the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to Myanmar in a quarter century, after Rajiv Gandhi did so in 1987. Singh’s visit has come shortly after a historic election in Myanmar in which opposition and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat, setting the stage for her to take public office for the first time in a country that has been under military rule for half a century.
The Indian Prime Minister’s visit is clearly an attempt to engage more cohesively with its neighbors, while recognizing that stability in its neighborhood and mutually beneficial equations are a must if India is to establish itself as a regional power and also for favorable internal dynamics; a recognition that a ‘messy’ neighborhood cannot fit into India’s grand vision of foreign policy.
Greater involvement with its neighbors and the developing world has been Singh’s agenda since he took oath the second time in 2009. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by him has had a disastrous three-year run since it was voted back to power with every conceivable blot and the Prime Minister has been criticized for showing little gumption. Singh’s government has been battling a series of scams and corruption charges, a hostile opposition, belligerent allies, electoral losses, standoff with the judiciary as well as the army, policy paralysis and its inability to engage effectively with even its allies and get them on board. However, though the Prime Minister has failed to rise up to the situation on any of these counts, his focus since on redefining India’s foreign policy to lay greater emphasis on the region, particularly normalizing equations with Pakistan, has been well received.
In his first term in power, Singh’s affinity for America was unmistakable. India’s foreign policy came to be defined by a pro-US slant, even at the risk of antagonizing and overlooking its neighboring countries and domestically, key allies like the Left parties. The otherwise unassertive Prime Minister famously risked his government for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal (the UPA had to face a no confidence motion after the Left bloc withdrew support from the government over the latter’s insistence on going ahead with the deal) and showed a kind of pluck rare for his tenure that had been overshadowed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi calling the actual shots.
Contrast this with his second stint as Prime Minister and one sees a clear distinction. Consider this. From 2004-09, in UPA 1’s tenure, Manmohan Singh visited the US four times, the UK twice and France and Russia twice each, apart from other countries like Germany, Brazil, South Africa etc which he visited once (the visits mentioned exclude those made for summits and round tables because they do not strictly fall under bilateral visits). Among the immediate neighbors, however, Singh visited only China, Bhutan and importantly Afghanistan.
It has been during 2009 till now, his second term, that Singh has looked at the region as a whole, with a defined engagement policy. Senior government officials admit here has been a deliberate and calibrated effort to improve relations with the rest of South Asia. He has so far visited (bilateral) Afghanistan, China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar and has laid extra emphasis on bringing a thaw to Indo-Pak relations, particularly after the unprecedented terror attack in 2008 in Mumbai in which some Pakistanis were accused of having a hand. He went to the US on a bilateral visit once in November 2009. Singh has also visited countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania.
But the highlight of India’s foreign policy in the last few years has been the warming of relations with Pakistan. As soon as Singh took over in 2009, he staked his political reputation by resuming talks with Pakistan, earning both praise and contempt from his domestic constituency. In July that year, Singh signed a joint statement with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at a meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in which both ordered their foreign secretaries to hold more talks to improve relations. This came less than a year after the deadly Mumbai terror strike and amidst widespread anti-Pakistan sentiments in India. While the wordings of the joint statement became hugely controversial and were indeed contentious, and many felt India had compromised its stand, the spirit and Singh’s design behind the move was unmistakable.
However, in his statement to the Indian Parliament later in the month, Singh showed the same resolve that he had to get the nuclear deal through and silenced even hardline critics. The Indian establishment is aware that an improvement in relations between India and Pakistan could help underpin stability in Afghanistan and thus, the region as a whole.
More recently, India and Pakistan have seen a tremendous boost in trade and economic relations and Singh yet again signaled his calibrated design to better ties with Pakistan when he invited Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari for lunch during the latter’s private one-day visit to a dargah in India. Ironically, the best equation India has right now among its neighbors is with Pakistan.
The Prime Minister also made another historic visit post 2009, to Bangladesh aimed at forging close bilateral relations. The visit, made in 2011, was the first by an Indian PM in 12 years. India’s bilateral engagement with Nepal has also gone up sharply and a visit by Singh has been on the horizon for a while, though political uncertainty here has been an impediment.
This engagement in the neighborhood comes at a time when the relationship between India and US, that had reached a peak with the landmark nuclear deal in 2008 for which Singh was vastly responsible, has witnessed a slight chill. Bilateral relations may not have really spiraled down but they certainly have plateaued. The US had expected India to reciprocate its support for the nuclear agreement with initiatives in other fields but India was keen to retain its strategic autonomy. India, on the other hand, felt the US did not do enough to get the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack to book. Further, India has been refusing to toe the US line on all issues in the UN Security Council and it even refused to give its biggest defense deal to the US.
The Indian government has been making a calibrated effort to improve relations with South Asia, recognizing that mutually beneficial equations are a must.
However, while there is now an understanding in India that treating neighbors as satellite states and expecting them to fall in line is not workable, given the complex historical background and power dynamics, there is also a problem with the inability to fully seize the moment. In Bangladesh, for instance, Singh lost the opportunity of signing an accord on sharing of waters of Teesta river after West Bengal chief minister and key ally Mamata Banerjee threw a tantrum and pulled out of the visit, expressing serious reservations. With Sri Lanka, the Manmohan Singh government risked worsening equations when it voted against it on a UNHCR resolution on alleged war crimes after a key southern ally and other parties from Tamil Nadu put tremendous pressure on it. With Pakistan, the perking up of equations is as much to the credit of the other party as it is to the Manmohan Singh government.
Having said that, it is evident that the Indian establishment led by Singh has recognized the growing need for engaging with its neighbors instead of considering them as mere threats. From viewing SAARC as a gang-up of smaller countries against India, New Delhi has graduated to seeing it as an instrument to promote its economic benefits. Singh and his government realize that engagement with the West alone is not enough and it has to go hand in hand with developing better links in South Asia—political, economic, trade and cultural as well as other developing nations.
Thus, while the current Indian dispensation has perhaps failed miserably on many other counts, it may well have given a fresh, mature, more regional and positive direction to the country’s foreign policy.