An agenda for Yashwant Sinha

AS HE takes hold of the foreign policy baton, the new External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, has his diplomatic tasks cut out. Although Mr. Sinha has inherited a well-defined diplomatic course from his predecessor, Jaswant Singh, there is no shortage of either diplomatic challenges or opportunities to put his own distinctive stamp on India's foreign policy.

His two stints as Finance Minister should give Mr. Sinha an extraordinary insight into the workings of the real motor of change in India's foreign policy over the last decade — globalisation. The foundations for a new Indian foreign policy were laid in 1991 by the Congress Government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao. As Mr. Rao and his able Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, coped with the collapse of the old order at home and engineered India's integration into the world economy they also created the basis for a different political engagement of the world.

The achievements of Indian foreign policy in the last four years stand on the foundations for a vibrant economy laid by Mr. Rao and Mr. Manmohan Singh in the early 1990s. India's post-Pokhran diplomacy would not have succeeded without the international perception of India as a big emerging market with great opportunities for an intensive commercial engagement. Nuclear weapons did give India a new profile in world affairs after 1998, but they were riding on the back of the new economy that was put in place in the first half of the 1990s. The creation of the political space and the acceleration of technological preparations for the nuclear tests, too, were the handiwork of Mr. Rao.

As Finance Minister for the last four years, Mr. Sinha has had the opportunity to deal with the real movers and shakers of the international system — bankers, financiers and men in charge of the world's leading Treasuries. That gives him a solid basis to lead the diplomatic effort to transform India's standing in world affairs, deepen its relations with the West, reconfigure its political ties with other major powers and transform the Subcontinent through economic integration.

Nor is Mr. Sinha unaware of the nuts and bolts of diplomacy. Having served as India's Consul General in Frankfurt in the 1970s, he is familiar with the ways of the IFS, the elitist cousin of the IAS that Mr. Sinha started his career in.

As he becomes India's top diplomat, Mr. Sinha will find his plate full of jobs half done and new issues that need to be addressed with urgency. None of them is more important than the immediate task of managing the triangular relationship involving New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington. Mr. Sinha takes the reins of Indian diplomacy in the middle of a delicate manoeuvre vis-a-vis Pakistan. This risky gamble has involved the deliberate mobilisation of Anglo-American powers to pressure Pakistan into giving up its support for cross-border terrorism.

The Anglo-Americans have extracted promises from Pervez Musharraf to put an end to cross-border infiltration on a permanent basis. But questions remain on his ability and willingness to deliver. To maintain the pressure on Gen. Musharraf, the new Foreign Minister will have to establish a quick personal rapport with key players in the U.S. and Britain.

New Delhi's current diplomatic dance with Washington and London is also critical in ensuring success in the upcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir. As he gets the Anglo-Americans to hold Gen. Musharraf's feet to the fire on cross-border terrorism, Mr. Sinha also needs to prepare for a substantive dialogue with Pakistan in the near future that will have to inevitably focus on finding a lasting solution to the issue over Jammu and Kashmir. In other words, some very central issues relating to Indian security are in play, and Indian diplomacy will be called upon in the next few weeks to handle them with dexterity and vision.

While he manages the risky business on Kashmir and Pakistan, Mr. Sinha will have to prevent India's relations with the U.S. from degenerating into dealing with a single issue — the conflict with Pakistan. While American support has become the key to transforming the relations with Pakistan, Mr. Sinha needs to work on the fundamentals of Indo-U.S. relations by deepening their commercial and strategic content.

While America, rightly, has become the dominant focus of Indian diplomacy in the last few years, the time has come to devote serious energy towards reshaping ties with Russia, China and Europe. Although Indo-Russian relations are on the upswing in the political and military spheres, New Delhi needs to quickly revive the moribund economic relationship with Moscow. As Moscow pushes ahead with radical economic reform, prepares to join the World Trade Organisation, and a new entrepreneurial class emerges in Russia, India cannot hope to do business with it along old lines. Without a conscious effort to strengthen economic bonds with the new Russia, New Delhi's strategic ties with Moscow might prove difficult to sustain.

Meanwhile the relationship with China is improving, but it continues to be dogged by uncertainty. Mr. Sinha needs to nudge the Foreign Office into shedding its current thinking on China that is so stifled by caution and inertia. There is room today for Mr. Sinha to focus on pragmatic problem-solving with China on issues such as clarification of the Line of Actual Control and opening the traditional trade routes through Sikkim.

Mr. Sinha's economic experience should also help push the Foreign Office into deliberately using commercial leverages to rework India's relations with its extended neighbourhood in South East, Central and South West Asia as well as Africa.

Mr. Sinha's predecessor tried but did not succeed in getting the South Block mandarins to think creatively about mega projects such as natural gas pipelines and transportation corridors to reconnect India to its natural economic space in the Indian Ocean littoral. But resistance from the traditionalist security perspectives in the Foreign Office has been difficult to overcome. Mr. Sinha is in a position to give these projects a big push.

The commercial dimension of diplomacy is even more inviting in the grand project that is awaiting India in the Subcontinent — to politically transform the region through freer trade. Here again the labyrinth of the Indian bureaucracy has slowed down the efforts in recent years to utilise the trends of globalisation to promote the economic integration of the Subcontinent. Adding to the difficulty is the distinct perception among India's smaller neighbours that New Delhi was so preoccupied with big powers and Islamabad that it has little time for them.

If he can correct these distortions, Mr. Sinha will contribute significantly to redefining the strategic template of the Subcontinent. There is an expansive agenda awaiting Mr. Sinha in the Foreign Office. If he can get his Ministry to think creatively and act boldly, the next few years could turn out to be even more rewarding for Indian diplomacy than the recent period.

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