The foreign policy of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government can be capsuled into three silos: a historic deal, a missed opportunity and a grand illusion. The mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s grit and determination to ensure the success of the India-US nuclear deal (despite huge risks to the survival of the government) may be counted as his government’s biggest achievement.
Even as sceptics from the Left and the Right went ballistic, it was clear that US president George W. Bush was easily the most pro-India president to occupy the Oval Office since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The deal ended three decades of nuclear isolation as India was mainstreamed into the regime.
Few could have imagined, even a few years ago, that India would be able to retain the nuclear weapons programme while securing nuclear cooperation. This was not clearly a deal which would win favour with the nuclear non-proliferation evangelists in the US or elsewhere. For, the agreement was designed not to box India and its nuclear programme into a corner but to welcome a rising India as a partner in the management of the international security system.
The missed opportunity was clearly with Pakistan. In retrospect, former president Pervez Musharraf had chutzpah. In the course of a television interview with an Indian journalist, he abandoned decades of the most sacredly held mantras of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy: plebiscite and the United Nations Security Council resolutions. During the course of the conversation, the general even ruled out supporting an independent Kashmir.
It also became clear that there was greater convergence between the positions of Singh and Musharraf on Kashmir than there has been between any two leaders of India and Pakistan in the past 40 years. Both ruled out a change of borders or an exchange of territories. Instead, they wanted the borders to be made irrelevant in order to ensure a free flow of goods, services and ideas across the line of control. It was also clear that there could not be any visible dilution of political sovereignty.
There were, of course, real differences over joint supervision and demilitarization, but president Musharraf conceded much more than any Pakistani leader in the past. It was a tragedy that because of a history of bitterness and bureaucratic inertia and because we could never bring ourselves to trust Musharraf, we lost a rare opportunity. Given the current state of Pakistan, it is unlikely that an opportunity will return in the foreseeable future.
The dangerous illusion was vis-a-vis China: a belief that Beijing was accommodative of Indian interests and the two giants could have a non-conflictual relationship. By 2009, it was clear China was working systematically to box India in South Asia and to limit India’s influence even in the neighbourhood, without converting New Delhi into an enemy. On any issue of importance to India, China was unwilling to concede.
Chinese intransigence on the boundary question was a case in point as was Chinese dumping in India.
Meanwhile, New Delhi had been virtually kowtowing to accommodate Chinese interests. The Dalai Lama was feted outside India, while the government of India treated him like virtual pariah. What was frightening was the manner in which China was buying influence by cultivating politicians and businessmen and other opinion makers. Whether this dangerous illusion sustains itself remains to be seen.
At the end of five years, however, it is clear that UPA’s foreign policy followed, for the most, the pragmatic realism in evidence since 1998.
The author is a foreign policy expert and a member of the National Knowledge Commission.