Having made amends on Maldives, there is hope that the Manmohan Singh government may yet salvage ties with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan

A couple of weeks ago, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed stopped in Delhi on his way to Saudi Arabia for umrah. He met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior officials in the Indian establishment. No press releases were issued, but the signal was clear: without saying sorry, India was apologising to Mr. Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party for having supported the “coup” against him in February 2012 and recognising his successor and current President Mohamed Waheed.

At least in the Maldives, the Manmohan Singh government has sought to correct its botched analysis of the political situation. Across the rest of South Asia, Delhi has so clearly lost its nerve that it has failed to project the leadership that is expected of it. Worse, by taking the path of least resistance, the Congress-led government has often ended up siding with regressive and reactionary forces at home as well as in these countries.

Bangladesh, for example. Finally, the Bill to ratify the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) was introduced in the Rajya Sabha last week — but had to be deferred again, because of opposition by the Bharatiya Janata Party — nearly two years after it was signed by Dr. Singh and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka. Having failed to call Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee’s bluff on the Teesta waters agreement, the Prime Minister hid behind the compulsions of coalition-building and failed to explain to senior BJP leaders early enough the importance of ratifying the LBA by the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Partisan politics

The meeting between the PM and the BJP came only a few days ago, far too late for any serious bargaining. With the government’s credibility falling by the day, the BJP, which hopes to win back power in 2014, failed to put national interest above partisan politics and strung Dr. Singh along. It insisted that Delhi first takes on board the views of States neighbouring Bangladesh — knowing, very well, that West Bengal would refuse to toe the line — and then put up the lone Asom Gana Parishad MP, Birendra Prsad Baishya, to opposing the Bill in the Rajya Sabha and bringing the House to a standstill.

Certainly, the BJP’s failure to take a statesmanlike view on improving ties with Bangladesh doesn’t exonerate the Manmohan Singh government of lack of focus on this very important relationship. The Prime Minister was simply unable to explain to the BJP, the Trinamool Congress, the AGP and others that if the LBA was not ratified by India, it would feed into the anti-Indian strain of Bangladesh politics and boost the prospects of key opposition and pro-Jamaat-e-Islami leader Khaleda Zia, of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader (BNP). Dr. Singh failed to point out that if Awami League leader and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lost the elections slated for January, the likelihood of India’s eastern frontier becoming much more troubled would significantly go up.

And so it was left to Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to India, Tariq Karim, to redeem the future for his country. Desperate to have the LBA ratified by India, and knowing that the BJP was a rising power, Mr. Karim met Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad a few weeks ago, perhaps the first sitting diplomat to do so.

Puzzling activism

If Delhi has been sleeping over Bangladesh, it’s over-activism in Bhutan has been puzzling. After its Prime Minister met the Chinese Premier in Rio de Janeiro last year, the Indians did a double-take. In Delhi’s black-and-white view of the world, how could a friend so openly consort with the enemy? But India forgot that South Asian realpolitik was not a Harry Potter movie and that China was not Voldemort; if anything, Delhi was reaching out to Beijing on several counts on its own steam. India’s decision to raise energy prices, passed off as a budgetary cut, caused a storm in Bhutan.

Observers have wondered about the remarkable lack of grace in dealing with Bhutan and asked if the division of power between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs was the root of the problem. During Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra had vied to be the most influential. The questions, whether there is a similar contest in the Manmohan Singh government and if so, who are its main protagonists, continue to loom large behind the scenes.

With Pakistan, of course, much has been written and said since the August 6 incidents on the Line of Control, when five Indian soldiers were killed by Pakistanis. The irony here is unmistakable: In the early days of the Kargil war, Pakistani soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry wore civilian clothing to sneak into India. In 2013, Pakistani citizens — soldiers, specialist troops or militants in army uniform — needed to wear official army dress to signal the seriousness of their intent to destabilise India.

When the BJP brought Parliament to a standstill demanding that Pakistan be declared Enemy Number One, Manmohan Singh & Co once again played right into their hands. India’s diplomats, famed the world over for their drafting skills, made such infantile errors on the wording of Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s statement that even a menagerie of doves could not defend him. Last heard, the Prime Minister was holding firm to the line that he would definitely shake Nawaz Sharif’s hand in New York, even as the BJP insisted he could have no “substantive” talks with a Pakistan Prime Minister who has suffered worse at the hands of his own Army than anyone alive in Pakistani politics. The party seemed so desperate to condemn the Congress that it was happy to abandon Mr. Vajpayee’s line on Pakistan — which it had been unhappy about in the first place, anyway.

The question is, can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rediscover himself, or is it too late for that? With 10 months left to go for the general elections, it is time Delhi did a Maldives in the neighbourhood. That would mean pushing through the LBA as well as the Teesta waters agreement with Bangladesh, going back to its time-tested dual policy on Pakistan — tough on terror but simultaneously opening up for trade, travel and visas — as well as hand-holding Nepal on its November election.

The first test will come on September 7 when Maldives votes for a new President. Can India bring to bear some moral authority that can ensure it will be a free and fair election?

(Jyoti Malhotra is a Delhi-based journalist.)

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