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.
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)