Aging leadership, ailing foreign policy

Foreign policy on its knees

Brahma Chellaney
Mint, April 20, 2011
The “incredible India” of the tourism ad campaign is increasingly showing itself in reality as a “credulous India” — one that refuses to learn from past mistakes or realize the costs of a meandering, personality-driven approach to policymaking. India’s foreign policy kowtows to two of its neighbours on the same day last week highlight this.

It has become tradition for any Indian prime minister visiting China to make an important concession to his hosts. Though Manmohan Singh travelled to Sanya ostensibly for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meeting held last Wednesday, he still delivered a gift-wrapped, two-in-one concession to Chinese President Hu Jintao — a double Indian climbdown on bilateral defence exchanges.

In resuming defence talks, India agreed both to delink them from the stapled-visa issue and, in deference to Beijing, to dilute the makeup of representation in its military delegation to China. Recall that India had frozen defence exchanges in response to two Chinese actions. One was Beijing’s policy of questioning India’s sovereignty in the Indian-controlled part of Jammu and Kashmir (China controls one-fifth of the original princely state) by issuing visas on a separate leaf to its residents. The other was its refusal to issue a normal visa to the Indian Army’s Northern Command chief, who was to lead the military team to China last summer.

Singh travelled to China just days after the new Northern Command chief publicly said that an influx of People’s Liberation Army troops into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir had created a Chinese military presence along Pakistan’s line of control with India. He wondered, “If there were to be hostilities between us and Pakistan, what would be the complicity of the Chinese?”

Singh, however, ignored all that by blithely delinking the resumption of military talks from China’s use of the J&K card against India. Beijing has not yielded even on the stapled-visa issue, with Singh’s national security adviser acknowledging that the matter remains under discussion.

Furthermore, New Delhi has agreed to leave out the leader of the military delegation to China — again the Northern Command chief. Instead, it will send in June a team led by a less-senior Northern Command officer, but also including representatives from other military commands.

If India is so ready to appreciate Chinese sensitivities on multiple matters, why did it suspend military exchanges in the first place? After all, in the months since the exchanges were frozen, China has only tightened its iron fist, extending its military footprint in Pakistan-held Kashmir to the line of control. Should respect for another country’s sensitivities produce abject spinelessness?

Take the second kowtow — the decision to resume bilateral cricket ties with Pakistan without having secured any anti-terror commitment. Indeed, Islamabad has had the last laugh: the Pakistan-based masterminds of the Mumbai terror attacks remain untouched and the terrorist-training camps near the border with India continue to operate. Yet, New Delhi has returned to square one by resuming cricket ties and political dialogue at all levels.

The use of cricket to re-engage Pakistan at the highest level, with Mohali representing only the first step, mocks the memory of 26/11. Since Pakistan launched its proxy war against India in the 1980s, New Delhi has blended cricket with politics to court Pakistan on three separate occasions, with Singh the architect of two of those.

Tellingly, only the victim of terror has practised cricket diplomacy, not the terrorist sponsor, which refuses to make any amends. In doing so, the victim has in fact rubbed salt in its own wounds. The decision to resume cricket ties, for example, followed Tahawwur Hussain Rana’s disclosure before a U.S. court that he had acted on behalf of Pakistani state agencies in carrying out advance reconnaissance for the 26/11 attacks.

Whereas the culpability of the Pakistani state in scripting, aiding and abetting 26/11 is clear, the culpability of Indian decision-makers in letting Islamabad off the hook over those attacks has received little public attention. New Delhi actually responded to 26/11 by fashioning a new and unique tool — dossier bombing. The weighty dossiers, delivered at regular intervals, only persuaded Pakistan to stick to its ground, with India eventually climbing down.

The cyclical pattern of dealing with Pakistan — terror strikes, followed by suspension of talks, renewed bonhomie after a gap, and more terror attacks — predates Singh. In fact, no prime minister followed a more frequently shifting policy on Pakistan than the weak-in-the-knees Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who went down on his knees to propitiate Pakistan, only to get kicked in the face. In a mid-2003 visit to Beijing, he even surrendered India’s remaining leverage on Tibet.

For more than two decades, scandal-tarred geriatric leaders have fostered an ailing foreign policy. In truth, India is paying the wages of corruption, which is softening the state, hollowing out institutions, and undermining national security. The more corruption has grown, the more national security has come under pressure.

Today, amid the unending carousel of mega-corruption scandals, an important distinction has been lost: It’s one thing to seek peaceful relations with scofflaw neighbours, but it’s entirely different to invite more pressures by presenting India as a weak, vacillating, inconsistent state that is unable to uphold principles, objectives or even national self-respect.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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