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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2584

India’s foreign policy: Where is the Minister?

By P R Kumaraswamy - Exclusive to "Asian Tribune"

The most remarkable aspect of the foreign policy of the current Indian government has been the absence of a full-fledged Foreign Minister. Since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru many prime ministers had dabbled with foreign policy. In addition to be the final authority of official policy, some had indeed functioned as full-fledge Foreign Ministers. Persons like Atal Behari Vajpayee and I K Gujral earlier served as foreign ministers before becoming prime ministers.

But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has always been known as a technocrat and a consummate expert on economy rather than foreign policy. Yes since the abrupt departure of Natwar Singh following the publication of the Volcker Commission report on Iraq’s oil-for-food scam, the Prime Minister had chosen not to appoint anyone. For brief period, well- learned, diplomatic and veteran leader Karan Singh’s name was floating. Prime Minister merely chose to send him as his special envoy to convey a stern warning to Nepalese King Gyanendra over continuing confrontation with the Maoist rebels.

With two junior ministers running the administrative part, the Foreign Secretary has emerged as the de facto foreign minister. Even though India had strong and highly visible senior diplomats who eloquently articulated Indian positions, this time is different. Shyam Saran is not known to be a heavy weight like J N Dixit who ran Narasimha Rao’s policy in early 1990s. But with only having to report to the Prime Minister directly of late, he has been setting out major contours of Indian foreign policy. He has been using state-funded think tanks to articulate the India’s neighbourhood policy, something that was hitherto done by elected politicians.

With the Prime Minister almost obsessed with improving India’s political ties and thereby enhance economic cooperation with Washington, the passage of the nuclear deal in the US Congress has become the major agenda of the South Bloc. And Shyam Saran has emerged as the key point person.

The absence of a full-fledged foreign minister was partly because of the scarcity of suitable candidates or contenders. But this can be said about most of the ministries. Independent analysts for example, have identified Mani Shankar Aiyar as one the best ministers in the cabinet. But he lost his oil portfolio because he stepped on to the toes of the Prime Minister over US dictates vis-à-vis Iran. Furthermost a number of senior colleagues are veterans of the bygone Cold War era and are hardly in a position to understand the fast changing dynamics of inter-state relations.

The foreign ministry also had some peculiar problems in recent months. Even when he was in the cabinet, Natwar Singh was kept out of the loop on some of the sensitive issues. His abrasive media remarks almost killed an Indian labourer who was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in 2004. Similarly his run-in with the US Congress leaders over Iran gave some anxious moments to the Prime Minister. When he knew that his days as minister were numbered, Natwar Singh made a somersault on Iran and publicly called for India’s abstention during the second vote in IAEA.

As oil minister Aiyar also had his own share of trouble making. His desire to promote India’s energy security made him look for lucrative overseas market and unlike his predecessors he aggressively promoted upstream ventures in different part of the world. His previous stint as career diplomat enabled him to pursue energy needs as a diplomatic tool. He perceived oil contacts as an economic as well as diplomatic avenue and used energy deals to promote closer ties with countries such as China and Russia.

However, his ideological zeal blinded him to certain political realities and he disregarded some of the concerns of the US and he chose countries such as Venezuela, Syria and Myanmar as possible energy partners. He was actively pushing the pipeline project from Iran even after Prime Minister publicly expressed doubts about international funding for such a venture.

While India need not listen and accept anything and everything from Washington, at least it should have been aware of some of the pitfalls in courting countries that were explicitly seen by the US as its adversary. A careful reading of Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1995 would have prepared India for possible negative consequences should it proceed with courting countries identified as ‘axis of evil’ by President George W Bush. Aiyar however, was not prepared to take any ‘dictates’ from anyone.

This however, put him into conflict with the policies perused by Manmohan Singh who was unprepared to do anything that would undermine the friendship that he is seeking with Washington. On the contrary, he was even prepared to forego the carefully crafted friendship with Tehran over Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions. The unnecessary public rhetoric from President Ahmadinejad made things easier for India but New Delhi’s abrupt U-turn at IAEA gave an impression that desire for uncertain benefits from the US compelled Manmohan Singh to abandon Iran at the very last moment.

Aiyar was quietly removed by the oil ministry and not many were convinced by the official spin that the Panchayat Raj Minister concurrently holding the portfolio was only a ‘temporarily’ arrangement. Furthermore, in his eagerness to induce Bangladesh join the Indo-Myanmar gas pipeline, he offered trade concessions to Dhaka that were outside the purview of the oil ministry and were vehemently opposed by the diplomats. Indeed Shyam Saran publicly criticized the concession as having “seriously compromised India’s position on these issues, was at variance with India’s considered positions and was not acceptable” to the foreign office.

In short, in the absence of a regular minister, Manmohan Singh holds great leverage not only in shaping foreign policy but also in preventing his colleagues from making any comments on foreign policy issues. One consequence of this was the emergence of Defence Minister Pranab Kumar Mukerjee as a spokesperson on foreign policy issues. Of late he has been presenting Indian stand on developments in Nepal and Sri Lanka. The official spin went to extent of describing his recent visit to Japan, China and Singapore as ‘defence diplomacy.’ This is rather odd because such a diplomacy would be effective only against weaker and not among competing powers.

By its very nature the defence ministry is and needed to be guided by potentials and capabilities rather than idealism and hopes. Wishful thinking, ideological blindness and incorrect reading of China got India into irrecoverable difficulties in 1962. Hence just as foreign office can’t run India’s security policy, diplomacy is too delicate to be entrusted to the Defence Ministry.

Further more, the Prime Minister suffers from the absence of a key foreign policy adviser, especially since the sudden death of Dixit in early 2005. The current National Security Adviser M K Narayanan belongs to the intelligence establishment and was not known to have dabbled in foreign policy issues until his sudden elevation. While security-mindset should look for pitfalls at every opportunity, diplomacy is an art that sees opportunity at every crisis.

Narayanan definitely belongs to the former school and Manmohan Singh needed a foreign policy advisor. Perhaps due to his reluctance to seek talents outside the system, he appears to have settled for the Foreign Secretary. With his superannuation due in September, one can perhaps expect Shyam Saran being given an extension, especially if the approval for the nuclear deal drags on in the US Congress.

P.R. Kumaraswamy - teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

- Asian Tribune -

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