PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh's foreign policy initiatives with Pakistan and America do not carry political credibility.
Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi reportedly advised the Indian prime minister to get the Congress party's support for the peace dialogue with his country as he claimed, " Without the party's support, no progress is possible in Indo- Pak talks." If this is indeed correct, then Qureshi has hit the nail on the head. He could have as well have added that Manmohan Singh should also get the support of his cabinet colleagues and, if possible, also take the Opposition on board.
There is a perception that in these two crucial foreign policy thrust areas he tends to plough a lonely furrow. This has been true of both his tenures. In UPA- I, there was neither consensus on foreign policy, nor the possibility of one, because the views of the Left parties were diametrically opposed to those of the Prime Minister, and they were desperately needed for the political survival of the government. In UPA- II, there is no Left, yet the issue of internal consensus remains.
Manmohan Singh does not have the knack of reaching out to the political class and is far more comfortable with bureaucrats and their advice. Bureaucrats on their part make the kind of arguments they would put on files— without much political sensitivity.
A politician in touch with the masses is conditioned to look at the effect of his actions, how they will be perceived and to assess what will fly and what will not.
Had Manmohan Singh been a politician in this sense of the term, he could have avoided many of his mistakes— e. g. leaving the civilian nuclear co- operation deal with the US to bureaucrats or using a retired policeman like M K Narayanan to handle politicians. Those with credibility within his cabinet could not be fielded because they themselves were not committed to the deal. In UPA- II, he has fielded yet another bureaucrat, Shivshankar Menon, to deal with the Bharatiya Janata Party on Pakistan. He has used bureaucrats again and again to push policies with acute political aspects.
Given Manmohan Singh's temperament, of shying away from politics or political responsibility, he expects 10, Janpath, to handle the political fallout of his policies. When cornered in Parliament, his replies seldom go beyond defensive statements that the National Democratic Alliance, too, had never taken the Opposition on board on key foreign policy initiatives.
By his reluctance to work towards a political consensus within his own party or with the Opposition, Manmohan Singh becomes politically weak. His writ does not run when he adamantly runs a policy vis- a- vis the US or Pakistan that is ahead of the national consensus. His initiatives are taken as his personal obsession or the result of his personal political orientation.
It is no surprise that the Opposition accuses him of translating his personal predilections into national policy instead of conceding that the prime minister is pro- India and working in the country's best interests. This is also the general impression that exists in wide swathes of the political and opinion making classes.
Yet he and the coterie of bureaucrats around him are unable or unwilling to step back and change direction. When criticised for being too flexible towards Pakistan or the US they have not come forth with a frontal explanation of the policies they have been pursuing. Nor have they shared with the nation, in a transparent manner, the pitfalls of pursuing those policies. Instead, the attempt is to suppress inconvenient facts which take everyone by surprise when they eventually emerge. For example, when the 123 Agreement was signed it was not disclosed that India would have to sign the nuclear liability bill. This could easily have been done and consensus built around the necessity of doing this— especially after a disaster like Chernobyl. The question of a supplier's as well as an operator's liability is a legitimate question which need not have been swept under the carpet.
In the case of Pakistan, having taken three plunges to reopen dialogue after the 26/ 11 Mumbai terrorist attacks — in Yekatarinberg, in Sharm- el- Sheikh and in starting the foreign secretary level talks in New Delhi — Manmohan Singh found it difficult to step back despite the fact that each time he has been rebuffed by Pakistan. If he thought he would be fourth time lucky, he was mistaken. In Thimpu also he got no assurance from Pakistan on preventing terror against India or acting against Hafiz Saeed and Jamat- ud- Dawa.
Even if we concede the best of motives to him, Manmohan Singh has been unable to assess in advance what the Pakistani reaction to his outreach to them would be. But to make matters worse because of the perception that Manmohan Singh is susceptible to American pressure, his initiatives towards Pakistan in the face of rebuffs, are seen as emanating from that pressure.
The net result is that India, which is at the receiving end of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil, is seen to be on the defensive on the issue of a bilateral dialogue.
On the other hand Pakistan, with whom lies the primary responsibility for normalisation of ties— as the active player in both terrorism and making territorial claims— is seen to be the one pursuing peace. By every standard that is a terrible policy failure.
The perception has grown both in India and within the Pakistan establishment that he is working at the goading of the US. This has allowed Pakistan— especially because of their improved ties with the US— to work tactically keeping the Americans reasonably satisfied while egging them to push India for an India- Pakistan dialogue in the interest of regional stability. Pakistan has managed to thus avoid making any significant effort to deal with terrorism directed against India from its soil.
By repeatedly reaching out to Pakistan despite getting no commitment from it on the issue, the Prime Minister has also weakened diplomatic pressure on Islamabad to act on terrorism. Pakistan seems to have concluded that India can be brought to the dialogue table sooner or later, without their having to take any steps against terrorism directed against India.
In the process of engaging Pakistan without properly thought out strategic objectives, India has also lost leverage with the US to persuade it to step up pressure on Pakistan in this matter.
Although India's gesture to Pakistan is in tune with US strategy in the region, India ironically gets no benefit from it at all.