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Thoughts for the season

Publication Date : 31-12-2013


The year 2013 has fleeted by, leaving not a great deal to recall or reflect upon in foreign affairs: no striking initiatives, no major developments, nothing to bring change or fresh challenge.

If anything, it has been a time of affirming the familiar, of following the trodden path. What has in recent weeks riveted public attention is the unanticipated and untoward development relating to the maltreatment of an Indian diplomat in New York but that is an altogether different order of event: in the regular business of external affairs, the comings and goings of statesmen and the shaping of arrangements with international partners, it has been a relatively quiet time.

Not that there has been any letup, for the exchanges have remained frequent, and there have been some visitors who have only rarely been seen in India, notably the Emperor and Empress of Japan. But on the whole it has been a rather unexciting year in foreign policy.

Much the same can be said of other areas of national life, and for much the same reason, for the slowing of the economy has been a principal cause of the drawing in of horns on the external front. For many years now India has been buoyed by a high economic growth rate, breeding confidence at home and opening new vistas abroad.

Others elsewhere may have had to face crippling problems as their economies took a beating and in many countries overcoming recession seemed an insuperable task. Not so in India where the effect of the international downturn did not hit as hard. But in the last twelve-months matters have become much tougher.

Growth has been much reduced and what had become a familiar procession of leaders and other visitors from abroad has been considerably reduced. This has made for a quieter engagement with external partners, while domestic preoccupations have become more pressing.

While much of the current downturn can legitimately be attributed to adverse conditions over which India has little control, there are also home-grown developments that have complicated the country’s foreign relations. For instance, in deference to strong sentiment in Tamil Nadu about the treatment of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister felt obliged to keep away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo.

Ordinarily, he would have attended for India has a strong interest in the Commonwealth which it did much to shape in the modern era, and of which it has been a pillar. Moreover, keeping away from CHOGM has many implications beyond sending a message to Sri Lanka, for the Commonwealth is an important forum for promoting ties with other developing countries, especially in Africa, that have become more significant as India’s globalisation has proceeded.  Keeping these relationships in good order under the aegis of the Commonwealth has always been an important priority.

The Colombo contretemps also highlighted the need for India to maintain sound working relations with countries in its region. Historically, Sri Lanka has always been well disposed to its large neighbour to its north while India’s overall security and political interests have been deeply engaged in Sri Lanka.

As maritime strategy assumes an ever larger emphasis for India, much attention has been directed to the surrounding seas in order to assure the security and safety of the sea routes on which the country’s dependence keeps increasing. Such considerations cannot be disregarded even when emotions run high and maintenance of normal cooperation becomes problematic, the more so because if India begins to seem remote, others may be tempted to step in.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, too, there were some disappointments. The perennial problem of dealing with Pakistan seemed at one stage to be taking a hopeful turn; the democratically elected leader of that country expressed interest in repairing ties, especially in economic and commercial matters, and in the afterglow of electoral success he even invited India’s Prime Minister to attend his swearing in ceremony.

Such a gesture may have been a step too far but a successful meeting of Commerce Secretaries raised hopes of easier business and commercial exchanges between the two countries. That hope is not lost but the momentum is reduced and there is little current expectation of any early advance in commerce and trade. As so often in the past, the two sides have returned to the default position of mutual doubt and suspicion.

For a while it had seemed that stasis on the western flank may be compensated for by movement on the opposite side, and that relations with China could show real progress on some of the points at issue between the two countries. Such expectations were encouraged by early thoughts about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing. The visit was certainly a success and reaffirmed the importance of India-China ties, without, however, offering any early end to their laborious, painstaking diplomatic  efforts of the last several years.

Other important meetings, like those with the leaders of Russia and UK, among several others, showed that India had remained active and had maintained continuity in its relations with the world. Nothing unexpected or extraordinary took place, perhaps in keeping with the generally unambitious mood induced by the global downturn and domestic uncertainties. Thus while nothing went awry, neither could it be claimed that anything special was achieved.

The country is now on the cusp of change, for general elections are due before long. There is now practically no scope to complete the initiatives that had marked earlier phases of the UPA’s functioning. Among these, one of the most striking was the conduct of back channel talks with Pakistan that came close to finding a revised basis for the conduct of the bilateral relationship. Bringing that home could have been a

fitting climax, and it seemed that the scope for it existed even as the year ran out, but it was not to be and it is now uncertain as to when or how issues first advanced in the back channel can be addressed afresh. 

For the coming year, there is at present little to suggest that foreign affairs will figure prominently in the calculations of any of the contestants in the elections. It is domestic issues that have dominated the political landscape during the series of recent State elections, and this may well continue when the general elections take place. It may also well be the case that any new government will take a while to work out its priorities in foreign affairs. Thus the relative quiescence that has marked the passage of the previous year could stretch further, and there may not be many joyful bells to ring in the new.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.



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