New challenges

Print edition : June 18, 2004

The CMP and the statements of External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh on the foreign policy priorities of the new government have set the tone for a much-needed course correction.

THE United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi faces many dilemmas and problems in the foreign policy arena. Many of the problems have been inherited from the National Democratic Alliance government. The first challenge for the new government, according to most foreign policy analysts, is to rectify the pro-American tilt of the earlier government. During its six years in power, the NDA government's handling of many important foreign policy matters was not to the nation's advantage.

After India went nuclear in 1998, considerable effort had to be undertaken to overcome the country's diplomatic isolation. The conciliatory moves towards the United States and the concessions that the government subsequently made were aimed at getting the punitive sanctions imposed by the West removed.

The Bharatiya Janata Party leadership has always been in favour of a "special relationship" with the U.S. The Americans also had long-term strategic goals in the region, especially vis-a-vis China. Washington wanted New Delhi to play a key role in curbing China's growing influence. India was among the first countries to welcome the George W. Bush administration's missile defence programme, which is aimed specifically against China. Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, in an interview to the Washington Post, even went to the extent of supporting the continuation of U.S. military bases in the Central Asian countries that share borders with China.

When Washington became preoccupied with the war on terror and shifted its attention to West Asia, the NDA government improved relations with Beijing, as China had slipped from the American radar screen. Since the visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing in September last year, four rounds of high-level talks have been held on the border issue.

Natwar Singh's statements after taking over as External Affairs Minister have been positive. He indicated that building strong ties with China is a top priority for the new government. He pointed out that Sino-Indian relations "are problem free except for the border question but a mechanism has been set up for addressing that problem". Natwar Singh said that the breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations came in December 1988 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made the historic visit to China, enabling a thaw in relations.

Chinese officials like to emphasise that they do not view India as a regional or strategic rival. "It is always better for your own security that your neighbour remains a friend and is not an enemy," said a Chinese analyst. China like many other countries was quick to welcome the change of government in New Delhi. The Chinese Foreign Office spokesman said that his country appreciates "the positive remarks made by Foreign Minister Singh after assuming office. We hope that the two governments will make joint efforts to maintain the good momentum of development of bilateral relations and to promote the new progress in the building of a constructive cooperative partnership between the two." The new National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit, who has the rank of Minster of State, will continue with the high-level talks with Beijing to resolve the border issue.

March 1983: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Cuban President Fidel Castro and other Third World leaders during the NAM summit in New Delhi. At right, Foreign Secretary Natwar Singh.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The government will have to work on convincing the Arab and Muslim world about its commitment to a just and multi-polar world. Former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra had called for a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis while on a visit to the U.S. last year. Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, the NDA government offered Indian military bases to the U.S. for use in its war against terror. It is another matter that the U.S. preferred to use Pakistani bases instead, as it made more strategic and geopolitical sense in the war in Afghanistan. The government, apparently was ready to despatch an entire Indian Army division to Iraq at the Bush administration's behest. A division was put on stand by for the mission. Interestingly, the Congress party, then in Opposition, had not raised any objections initially. Better sense prevailed at the eleventh hour and the U.S. request was put on the back burner by the government.

According to diplomatic sources, the NDA government had kept open the possibility of dispatching troops to Iraq provided there was a United Nations Security Council resolution authorising such a move. The question of dispatching troops to Iraq will be one of the first major foreign policy challenges the new government is likely to face, as indications are that the Security Council is likely to pass a resolution authorising the deployment of peacekeepers in Iraq. Most countries are reluctant to send their forces to Iraq even under the fig leaf of a U.N. mandate. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, for instance, has said that his country will oppose the deployment of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops in Iraq.

The UPA government will be under pressure from Washington to lend it a helping hand. Natwar Singh had characterised the American actions in Iraq as a "misadventure" and a "disaster". He was speaking to a news agency as head of the AICC foreign affairs cell, a few days before joining the Cabinet. He said: "[A]s friends of the Americans, it is our duty to share our concerns about Iraq with them. That is friendship not subservience". However, there are some influential elements in the new government who earlier had supported the sending of troops to Iraq. "India should make its position clear on Iraq, especially on the plans of bestowing pseudo-sovereignty on the country," said Prakash Karat, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member. He also wanted the new government to make its displeasure with Israel to be made public, especially after the events in Rafah and other parts of the occupied territories.

The influence of the pro-American elements was evident in the copy of the first Congress draft of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) relating to foreign affairs. "Even as it pursues closer strategic and economic engagement with the U.S., the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will maintain the independence of India's foreign policy stance." The Left parties pointed out that this foreign policy formulation did not even conform to the Congress' election manifesto. In the CMP draft presented by the Congress, only the U.S. was given the exalted status of a "strategic partner". Traditional allies of India such as Russia were ignored.

The Left parties insisted that the government should pursue an independent foreign policy based on the country's foreign policy traditions based on non-alignment. They argued that the foreign policy should promote the goals of multipolarity in international relations and should be against hegemonism of the kind being practised against countries such as Iraq. The Left sought a clear commitment from the Congress that there should be a specific mention of forging close alliances with Russia, the European Union and China. The Left also insisted that special mention should be made about the need for forging closer relations with major developing countries such as South Africa and Brazil.

Significantly, the Left Parties demanded a foreign policy course correction in the government's policy towards West Asia, including the reversal of pro-Israeli policies and a reiteration of India's traditional ties with the Arab world and support to the Palestinian cause. The NDA government had given a great deal of importance to its "strategic" relations with Israel. The Jewish state had emerged as the second leading arms seller in the lucrative Indian arms bazaar. It was argued that buying arms from Israel was good tactics as it served the twin purposes of getting advanced technology of American origin and at the same time gaining political leverage in Washington through Jewish lobby groups. Diplomats from Arab countries feel that the new government could at least follow the example of Turkey, a traditional ally of Israel. It has recently announced that it would stop buying weaponry from Israel and downgrade relations if the country continues with its brutal occupation policies.

The view of the Left parties was finally incorporated in the final version of the CMP. Prakash Karat said that the section relating to foreign policy represents "a break from the Vajpayee government's pro-American stand. Corrective measures have been provided on relations with Israel." He said that the CMP provides an "explicit commitment to multi-polarity". The Left would have preferred a critical reference to U.S. unilateralism in world affairs. The CMP states that the government "will seek to promote multi-polarity in world relations and oppose all attempts at unilateralism". The entire world knows that it is only the U.S. that is indulging in unilateralism in world politics today, Prakash Karat added. "The document is a reiteration of the traditional ties with West Asia and the Palestinian people," he asserted. He also pointed out that the document stresses the improvement of ties with China and the continuation of the dialogue process with Pakistan. "This is a good basis for the extension of support to the new government."

Natwar Singh said that the Congress-led government will continue to have "close relations with the United States of America" while at the same time strengthening relations with other important nations such as Russia, China, the European Union and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is evidently a priority for the new government.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after assuming office, stated that the dialogue process with Pakistan would continue. Natwar Singh, who had served as India's High Commissioner to Pakistan in the 1970s said that the new government would "further strengthen, widen and deepen our relations with Pakistan".

The Pakistan government has welcomed the commitment by the new government to continue the peace process. Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf has invited Congress president Sonia Gandhi to visit Pakistan. Musharraf and the Pakistani political establishment had taken it virtually for granted that the BJP led government would be swept back to power. The diplomatic concessions offered by Pakistan in January during Vajpayee's visit there were to a great extent dictated by the assumption that Islamabad would have to deal with a right wing Hindu nationalist government in Delhi. There was also the feeling in Islamabad that only a party like the BJP could afford to make concessions on the thorny issue of Kashmir and sign a comprehensive peace pact with Pakistan. The Pakistani leadership has taken positive note of the statements by Congress leaders that they were demanding normalisation of relations with Islamabad when the NDA government was threatening war against Pakistan. The CMP states: "Dialogue with Pakistan on all issues will be pursued systematically and on a sustained basis."

The BJP-led government was also generally indifferent to issues concerning the developing world. The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) was sought to be downplayed. Instead of leading from the front, New Delhi came to be identified with the group of nations who were close to the West. New Delhi's hand was seen in the dilution of the recent NAM resolutions on Iraq and Palestine. Vajpayee had not found the time to attend the G-77 summit at Havana, which was held three years ago. The summit was attended by the heads of state of all the leading developing countries, including Malaysia, South Africa and Nigeria.

The UPA government has pledged in the CMP to "pursue an independent foreign policy, keeping in mind past traditions". The new government has also promised to "play a proactive role in strengthening the emerging solidarity of developing countries in the shape of G-20 in the WTO".

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