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Updated: January 24, 2013 12:46 IST

Decoding Manmohan Singh’s red lines

Sanjaya Baru
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Despite political constraints, the Prime Minister has jealously guarded his turf on foreign policy and national security

Many eyebrows were raised in Delhi and around the world when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asserted that “it cannot be business as usual” with Pakistan after the recent incident on the Line of Control (LoC). Merely because these remarks came after the National Security Adviser briefed Opposition leaders about the government’s approach to the issue, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha took credit for the Prime Minister’s tough stance, while welcoming it. That Dr. Singh adopted a more nuanced approach and not the sledge-hammer response that the Bharatiya Janata Party and hotheads in the media had sought has since become clear.

‘Uncharacteristic’ toughness

The many expressions of surprise, accompanied by gratuitous remarks about Dr. Singh’s ‘uncharacteristic’ toughness, ignore the fact that on vital national security and foreign policy issues, the Prime Minister has always drawn red lines and stuck to them. These red lines have been drawn both with respect to political parties and ministerial colleagues at home and foreign governments. When it comes to foreign policy, Dr. Singh has jealously guarded Prime Ministerial turf and defended the national interest.

In India’s federal, parliamentary, cabinet form and now coalitional government system, foreign policy remains, as it always has been, the prerogative of the Prime Minister alone. Fully appreciative of the limits within which a Prime Minister could function in the kind of set-up that he had inherited, Dr. Singh was quick to draw red lines at home, as his first Foreign Minister, Natwar Singh, discovered early during his term in office.

On occasions when Dr. Singh has had to yield space to his critics, both within and outside the government, he has either stooped to conquer or stepped back to once again sally forth. And, when he has been unable to achieve his objective with either strategy, Dr. Singh has imposed a cost on his critics and adversaries. He has, however, rarely given up pursuing a stated objective. One can give several examples in support of this assertion.

The most dramatic event occurred when the Left Front government informed the Centre that it would not be able to ensure law and order at the Kalaikunda air force base where a group of CPI(M) protesters had planned to gather to disrupt joint air exercises between the Indian Air Force and the United States Air Force. Reminding Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya that no State government can prevent the Centre from conducting defence and foreign policy, Dr. Singh threatened to impose President’s rule in West Bengal if the State government failed to discharge its constitutional responsibility of maintaining law and order, especially near a defence installation. Not only did Mr. Bhattacharya fall in line, the CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat called on Dr. Singh and gave his personal assurance that there would be no disruption of the exercises.

More recently, there was a comment that the same Dr. Singh failed to impose similar discipline on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee when she blocked a bilateral agreement between India and Bangladesh on Teesta river water sharing. Here too the fact remains that eventually the government of India was able to implement a large part of the understanding with Bangladesh, but Dr. Singh also ensured, over time, that the Trinamool Congress had to pay a price and was ejected from the United Progressive Alliance, much like the Left Front. In both cases, the message was that State governments cannot cross certain red lines on matters of national security and foreign policy.

One can give several other examples where Dr. Singh may have initially stepped back in the face of opposition at home but eventually walked the talk. Faced with criticism at home, even from his own party, for the famous India-Pakistan joint statement at Sharm-el-Shaikh, in July 2009, Dr. Singh not only defended his initiative twice in a month in Parliament but also continued his dialogue with his Pakistani counterpart.

The last word

Indeed, even when UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote an ill-advised letter to Dr. Singh expressing concern about the India-Asean free trade agreement, Dr. Singh chose to stand his ground. When her letter was leaked to the media by a party functionary, Dr. Singh did not mind his reply being released to the media. The message once again was that on matters of national security and foreign policy, the Prime Minister would have the last word.

Externally also, Dr. Singh has not shied away from drawing red lines. When President Barack Obama sought to send Richard Holbrooke to India as a special envoy to discuss Kashmir, the U.S. was told in no uncertain terms that Mr. Holbrooke would not be welcome.

On another occasion, when the Chinese government publicly warned India against permitting the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, Dr. Singh made bold to let China know that it cannot dictate which part of India the Dalai Lama can or cannot travel to. A similar red line was drawn on the issue of the attendance of the Indian ambassador at the ceremony where a Chinese dissident was to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize and on China stamping its version of India’s map on Indian passports.

Any analyst of foreign affairs can list several such examples, based on media reports, where Dr. Singh has jealously guarded prime ministerial turf and the national interest in the conduct of foreign and defence policy.

It is understandable that this toughness is not always evident in the handling of domestic political issues. But then, over the past two decades, successive Indian Prime Ministers, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had discovered the limits to their political power at home given the nature of coalition politics.

While many of Dr. Singh’s critics imagine that he pursued the civil nuclear energy agreement with the U.S. in the face of Left Front opposition because he was being adamant, or “soft” on the U.S. and so on, an important reason, apart from his conviction about the merits of the agreement itself, was his resolve not to allow domestic politics to limit prime ministerial prerogative in the conduct of foreign policy and national security.

As he then famously asked his own party’s leaders, which head of government would take the Indian Prime Minister’s word seriously in any international negotiation if he cannot stick to that word.

With Pakistan, Dr. Singh has adequately demonstrated his ability to overcome domestic opposition to his peace initiatives. If the Pervez Musharraf-Manmohan Singh dialogue reached a dead end it was not for want of resolve on Dr. Singh’s part. Rather, it was because of the turn that the domestic situation in Pakistan had taken in 2007. Despite the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, Dr. Singh has shown consistency and determination in taking the dialogue process forward.

But, even Pakistan has to respect Dr. Singh’s red lines, just as President Obama and President Hu Jintao were required to. That thinking appears to have triggered the ‘no business as usual’ remark and it has had the intended impact.

(The writer is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Hon. Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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An excellent and refreshing piece of an article and it seems to
be a response to AGNoorani's highly partisan,biased article on this paper's pages else
where.The writer did excellent research into various instances where ourPM stood his
ground in the national interest inspite of the serious limitations imposed by the tragic coalition
politics.The article also helps to put in proper perspective the tough nature of the otherwise
brittle looking MMS.

from:  Pant K. V.
Posted on: Jan 24, 2013 at 22:37 IST

It is a highly immature claim that MMS has not been able to put a lid on the corruption. May be he has. No one knows how many corruption attempts he has foiled. Who knows what would have happened if we had some other corrupt PM. Possible scenarios: 1. Several more cases of corruption 2. Cases going unnoticed, if we had somehow not known of, lets say, the 2G scam among others, we would have been going gaga over MMS. Such is life!

from:  Arun Raman
Posted on: Jan 24, 2013 at 11:01 IST

The author should have made clear whose eyebrows were raised.He uses the
term "many" .Who are this many.

from:  RISHI
Posted on: Jan 24, 2013 at 10:41 IST

The views expressed by the author are facts and not a product of imagination.The PM by himself can not eradicate all the ills of the country facing.Are the opposition parties in any way better when it comes to corruption.I think we have a honest PM in so many years.

from:  kirubakaran
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 20:18 IST

Perhaps, no one should speak anything favorable to either Dr MMS or
Congress party.

from:  raghavan
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 19:59 IST

To the people who want answers impatiently, analysis of actions do no good. They want hyperbole statements and knee-jerk reactions by political leaders. They want grandstands. These are not possible everytime one section of public want it from their leaders -- whether it is foreign affairs or internal matters of governance and deliverance to bugging issues. MMS has practised silence publicly. He does what he can do or is forced to take a stand according to the sense and interest of the nation. For what he is, he is not ostentatious, does not bother about criticisms nor is expecting congratulatory words and comments from colleagues or opponents. History has to judge his mode of performing the duty. Democracy is a donkey that kicks on all sides whether it is controlled or not. The distributed system of control in the democracy is like this donkey. The master leader allows the donkey to be free only upto a limit. Such a leader cannot be a dictator, and sometimes people want him to be so.

from:  Hari Subramanian
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 19:44 IST

Very well written Sir. You have unveiled major facts and I really appreciate your research work.

from:  Pankaj Dhingra
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 19:42 IST

I think Mr. Sanjaya Baru is still yet to move on after his stint as the Media advior to the PM. No Offence meant to Mr. Manmohan but the fact is that the analysis provided by Mr. Baru is extremely one sided. It is always easy to blame everything on "Alliance Dharma", what matters is what he did to stop some of the most blatant misuse of power which occured under his watch.History will remember Mr.Manmohan as the head of one of the most corrupt goverments till date, sadly he might be among the most honest people to don that position.

from:  Arun
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 19:18 IST

A brave, but failed attempt to show Dr Manmohan Singh as a resolute
leader. Democracy is about dialouge and that too a dialouge with the
people. Dr. Singh is a Prime Minister and his responsibility is to lead
the country. It seems he only administers the country and performing a
role of bureaucratic PM Dr Sanjay Baru has missed this point and
showers accolades on the PM This shows how the intellectual class has
moved far away from the emotions and feelings of common people.

from:  Prakash Bal
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 18:12 IST

This article is part of a concerted effort of a section of the media to let Mr. Manmohan Singh usher out of the system with the heads held high, with an aura of no mistakes done...

from:  Subhajit
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 17:56 IST

After reading this article, for the first time since 2004 i felt proud about our PM.

from:  Sivaram Bitragunta
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 16:28 IST

The hypothesis of the author stands proved, but the examples chosen may not be appropriate. TMC walked out of the coalition and not the way it was projected in the article. The events at Sharm el Shaik can not be judged today in terms of benefits or otherwise for the nation.
The PM takes a very well considered decision on all matters of national importance. He lets the ministers deal with the mundane issues. Thats how the PM should function. I only wish he would have been more firm in dealing with the scams that have taken place under his government.

from:  Ashish
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 15:55 IST

Have substance but very selective thought !!!

from:  Vineet Kumar Singh
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 15:47 IST

The author describing only the trivial circumstances doesn't justify the
MMS true intent. There were lot more important issues that required him
to stand tall on firm decision which he let loose. Point to note is, not
to take the internal matters to the national security level which is
commendable.

from:  vinod
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 13:37 IST

ani, i think manmohan singh is analytical in his approach - he weighs
options and selects his stands. I agree with this article - one thing
about him is that he is adamant with his belief. Anyone could shake
with the amount of criticism he faces everyday. This character have
made him deliver some game changing policies for the country - nuclear
deal, fdi, rti, adhaar. These are sensitive subjects politically, yet
have long term impact. The other side of being too analytical in your
approach makes you ignore the soft side of running an administration.
He didn't care much about public opinion, media or his party. That is
the reason why he never gets credit for his work. I do not think he
cares much either.

from:  amit
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 13:13 IST

There is no question about prime minister abilities and credentials in foreign policies and national interests and seeding the animal spirits in the flagging economy which was testified by US president Barack Obama and all the greats around the world. But the main area of corcern is his to ability to have connect between ordinary citizens of the country in the wake of the distressing events in the state.

from:  santhosh k
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 12:47 IST

India's foreign policy is to go to the gunfight with a sword !!!!

from:  Ram
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 12:11 IST

This is an article of convenience.Many of the instances are intertwined as a cause and effect, when they are not. MMS has been the worst prime minister India has seen specially his efficacy in UPA 2. Recall the comments of "coalition dharma" as an excuse for allowing the 2G scam. The rehabilitation of Kalmadi, the CWG scam accused is complete. The making of Coal scam....that is the legacy of MMS.

from:  Srinivas
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 12:04 IST

Why, one would almost feel after reading this article that India were lucky and should be thankful for MMS, the PM with iron hand. Am I supposed to write paeans or would an ode to the tough standing man be a better tribute.Freaking horsefeathers!!!!
Where is the Maldives fiasco?Sri Lankan relations with us get colder each passing year.That we have failed to engage actively in Afghanistan has been given a convenient miss.Our looking away all these years from the human crisis that has raged in Myanmar doesn't get any mention.
Foreign Policy has been an unmitigated disaster, if you look at it without bias and attaching emotions or extending sympathy , as is the case in this article. We have not pushed for India's case across its' borders,not engaged in world scale deliberations on important issues of the day, and scarcely made attempts of strengthening our ties and bonds with our neighboring nations.

from:  Saurabh Kishore
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 11:52 IST

Sir,
A poor one sided argument that a news paper of Hindu's quality should not have published. The entire country is reeling under price rices on every field and the common man's life has hit an all time low due to the neoliberal policies , all round lawlessness and corruption. The author, before writing this article should have stepped out of his office and interviewed first ten people he meets on the road about the contents of this article.

from:  HARISANKARAN.V
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 11:52 IST

India has always supported a collective and sustainable development in
global political and financial system.Dr. Manmohan Singh is a scholar
and has shown his credential over the time since 1992 reforms.But the
irony of the whole story lies with our neighbors and some disturbing
state elements.
India Now a days rising among most likely destination to the global
development sector,and that is just because of our collective and
friendly foreign policies.And this also the demand of the time.But
parallel to this running a smooth democracy of 1.21 billion peoples is
a challenging task in itself.
Our Present PM has delivered this responsibility,but sometimes one has
to be compromising because in coalition governments finding a path of
win-win situation is not possible always.
See,keeping yourself strict to national security issues and foreign
policy is more important and critical for the national interest and
the same has been delivered by our PM 'we appreciate that'.

from:  Mayank Kanga
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 11:35 IST

An interesting perspecitve on the PM. Surely he is not lame duck, else he would not have pursued the FDI policy so persistently and got his way.

from:  Arun Menon
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 11:00 IST

I was just going to post the same thing that mahadevan did.

from:  tej lohit reddy
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 10:44 IST

Is there any foreign policy existing??

from:  C S Sundaresha
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 10:43 IST

"Dr. Singh also ensured, over time, that the Trinamool Congress had to
pay a price and was ejected from the United Progressive Alliance, much
like the Left Front"-- It is a well known fact that both Left and
Trinamool abandoned the UPA rather than other way around.

The article appears too much one sided in favor of Dr. Singh. The
reality speaks otherwise! inter alia- Dr. Singh has failed to tackle
corruption during his successive tenures is no hidden fact...

from:  Gaurav
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 10:24 IST

The author desperately trying to bring a straw for balancing the gone
glory of Hon’ble PM!

from:  Ruchi Jain
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 10:19 IST

This article is intended for those critics who underestimate Dr. Manmohan Singh. An eye opener article.

from:  Saurabh
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 10:08 IST

PM Singh has rightly reiterated that domestic politics should not have a veto on foreign policy issues.National interests should be above all considerations.

from:  MAHENDRA GAUR
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 10:04 IST

The author seems to give kudos to the Prime Minister and tries to attribute few qualities which are never seen in MMS. Could the PM stop Tamil Nadu Government from evicting foot ball players of SriLanka? Could he continue training of Lankan military personnel in TN? Trinamool's exit was not because of courage shown by MMS, rather Mamata's strong stand on FDI in retail.

from:  Mahadevan
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 09:50 IST

Very nice article. Dr Manmohan Singh is one of the greatest economist among all World leaders & ushered in reforms with former PM PVN Rao's backing & saved our country from financial crisis of 1998. As a PM he has risen above the petty politics & done what is good for India when it comes to important decisions. Our country is blessed to have Dr Manmohan Singh as PM.

from:  Austin
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 09:29 IST

Sorry, this does not read like an "opinion" piece. I expected better from The Hindu.
Best regards

from:  Amit Thakur
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 07:54 IST

It is PM's responsibility to take stand on Country's foreign and
security related policies else country and government become susceptible
to exploit. In addition to this, more bold and clear internal decisions
should be taken to put stability in national matters specially in case
of Kashmir.

from:  Vineet
Posted on: Jan 23, 2013 at 06:17 IST
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