India: Policy pitfalls and way out

By K.N. Pandita

The question expressly asked is this: With a massive mandate from the electorate, will NDA government, led by Narendra Modi, succeed in bringing about a thaw in country’s frozen and typecast domestic policy? If the axiom that a country’s foreign policy is actually the extension of its domestic policy is accepted, any fundamental change in domestic policy should have its reverberation in that state’s foreign policy.

We know that UPA government’s long stint in office witnessed emergence and gradual rise of various categories of regional and sub-regional identities in the country, each of them aspiring for assertion. Hindsight shows that UPA government lacked the quality of astute statesmanship in accommodating them on the premise of country’s federal structure rather than succumbing to lust for power. The emerging identities did not hide focusing on power sharing politics on regional level.  

As these identities moved upwards to a higher pedestal to become partners in governance, they became conscious of the ground reality that, although the Congress was a majority group, yet in coalition arrangement, they could dictate terms, or conversely, could malign the mainstream party by bringing against it the allegation of over-riding its urges. Astute Congress leadership could have skillfully contained unreasoned ambitions of these entities. That is precisely what the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao wanted to do. But the coterie at the Congress High Command not only obstructed him but also clipped his wings and finally sidelined him.

The fault of Congress lay in sticking to power like a leech and not making a single tactical move that would have shown the collating identities their proper place. Dispassionate analysis will reveal that this inexcusable passivity provided fertile ground for corruption and misrule to flourish. At the end of the day, it spelt the doom for Congress party.

Narendra Modi is fortunate not to inherit the disastrous legacy of coalition government compulsorily cobbled together by myopic regional upstarts. It happened for him not because of any inexplicable mechanism at work but because of people fully understanding the darker side of regional potentates anchored in parochial and communal politics. He should be able to take such bold decisions in domestic policy as would find reverberation in India’s foreign policy. This is urgently needed.

Much is said about India as an Asian giant and regional power. Occasionally, a western dignitary on a goodwill visit to India, cheers up his host by speaking a few glossy words about India’s ancient civilization predicated by imagined role in continental or sub-continental politics and strategy.

How far has India been able to influence regional politics and strategy is what should become a subject of intense debate among political commentators. A country of India’s physical expanse, location and human and natural resources is presumed to be an important actor on Asian scene.
How far does the ground situation endorse this line of thinking?

A few instances of recent past will show that India’s foreign policy under UPA had become a prisoner of her domestic constriction. Three times did the Sri Lankan government offer India the project of developing Hambantota sea port at the extreme southern tip of the Island. This tsunami-ridden port falls in the constituency of President Rajapakse. But UPA government dithered and succumbed to relentless opposition and intimidation by DMK, its jingoistic aggressive coalition partner. And when China stepped in and wrested the opportunity from India’s hands, UPA went around trumpeting her usual rhetoric that China was throwing a naval cordon around her in the Indian Ocean, and was looking for a foothold close to Indian coastline with ill intentions. It was too conceited not to understand that it was trying to cash a counterfeit coin.

After the implosion of Soviet Union and declaration of independence by the Central Asian Republics in 1991, Indian policy planners toyed with the idea of initiating trade relations with that region. But owing to decades-long hostility with its western neighbor, overland transit route to Afghanistan was not the option. Somehow, the Indian policy planners at the foreign office concentrated on the Iranian port of Chahbahar, out of the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf just 70 kilometers to the east of Pakistani port of Gawadar as India’s outlet to Central Asia. Talks were held with Iranian authorities on the development of Chahbahar port which India would be allowed to use for transshipment of Indian merchandise to Central Asia through Chahbahar- Sirakhs (on Iran-Turkmenistan border) rail link, which India undertook to build.

Building of Chahbahar as a viable seaport was a rare concession Iran had made to India after refusing it to China. But it is eleven years down the line and India has not taken even the first step. Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi, Iran’s Consul General in India Hasan Nourian did not mince words and said that Iran had waited eleven long years for India to build Chahbahar seaport but she has been dragging her feet. As against this, China completed building of Gawadar seaport for Pakistan in record time of three years despite threats and sabotaging by Baluch nationalist insurgents. Reports indicate that Iran and China are discussing the project.

India dithered in Chahbahar project because of pressure from the USA which had managed imposition of UN sanctions against Iran. Same was the case with IPI gas pipeline project for which negotiations went on for a couple of years. Chahbahar debacle has proved big setback to India’s policy in Afghanistan, and the expected quantum of trade with Central Asian Republics may never be reached.

The strategically important Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan, contiguous to Northern Afghanistan, could have, at one point of time, become India’s strong foothold in the vast Eurasian region. We lost it because of our pusillanimity. And now China offers mega schemes for management of Tajikistan’s water resources. Non-conventional diplomacy resulted in India losing Aini airport under Russian pressure.

Again India seems to be dithering in Myanmar also. It is doubtful if she can succeed in checkmating growing Chinese influence in this neighbouring state. Myanmar had offered India construction of two hydro-electric power projects to be undertaken by NHPC. It could have given her a strong foothold. But India dithered saying the projects were “too expensive”. Against this, China is going ahead with 33 projects in that country. Don’t forget that recent revelations tell us that ISI has been actively networking with the Muslim dissidents in Myanmar.

Incidentally, after realizing the importance of developing Sittwe seaport in western Arkans in Myanmar to the opening up of turbulent North East, particularly Mizoram, and assigning the task to Essar Group, India has not shown any progress in the execution of Kaladan project, a commitment with Myanmar that would link Mizoram with the seaport and open up new avenues of trade and commerce with ASEAN. On the other hand China is actively involved in overland road link to Yangun.

Modi government has inherited many frightening problems and any drastic change in domestic policy, though certainly needed, has to be brought about after cool consideration of its pros and cons. It has to be made sufficiently clear to all stakeholders that a new direction to India’s home policy is inevitable if we are to rebuild our international profile. A good start has been made by inviting SAARC members at oath taking ceremony. They expect pragmatic refreshing of relationship. The time has come. Prime Minister Modi has made exceptionally wise decision of creating new federal Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MDONER) and placing it in the charge of former Army Chief General V.K. Singh known for his dynamism and purposefulness. It should augur well for the nation.

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