December 30, 2009

India 2009: Steadfast in a Turbulent World


By T.P.Sreenivasan

Today, January 2009 looks like it was a long time ago. Although India
was in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in history, it
seemed capable of contributing to the restoration of calm after the
storm in the global community. The world was excited about the
election of Barack Obama, who promised change, including an escape
from the global economic and financial crisis. India was preparing for
an election, whose outcome was uncertain, but there was some
expectation that the Congress would come back to power in a weak
coalition. India-China parleys on the border were taking place
intermittently and high level contacts were common between the two
countries. The excitement over the signing of the nuclear deal was
tempered by some apprehensions about the nuclear policy of the
Democrats, but there were assurances of continuity. Iraq war was
abating and the Afghan front was not too critical. An increasingly
assertive Russia was finding its way to work out a new equation with
the United States.

If change in the US was the biggest event of the year in the world, no
change in the Government in India was the most significant development
in India. The foreign policy makers of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh and
Mr. M.K.Narayanan remained at the helm and Mr. T.K.A.Nair and Mr.
Shyam Saran continued at crucial positions in the Prime Minister’s
Office (PMO). The appointment of Mr. S.M.Krishna as the Minister for
External Affairs gave gravitas to the post, but ensured that the PMO
continued to call the shots on foreign policy. The change of Ministers
of State or the Foreign Secretary did not signal any policy shift. The
infinite promise of Dr. Shashi Tharoor was “twittered” away in days.
The Prime Minister, rejuvenated by a strong mandate and a heart
surgery, was clearly at the helm, with strong support from the Party

With an eye on his foreign affairs legacy, the Prime Minister led
India with the sure touch of a captain piloting his aircraft through
turbulence. He preferred to steer clear of the storm rather than risk
heading to the eye of it. But he did not turn away in fear or change
course dramatically. By the end of the year, the foreign policy
appears to be in good shape, though still buffeted by the winds of
change blowing across the globe.

Among the many foreign policy challenges that the UPA Government,
particularly Dr. Manmohan Singh, faced in 2009 was how to preserve the
gains in India-US relations registered during the Bush Administration.
Many Democrats were convinced that India got away with many
concessions from the Bush Administration on nuclear matters and that
it was necessary to restore a certain balance in the relationship. The
rise of China in the US calculations imposed its own pressures on
India-US relationship. The United States revamped its policy towards
Afghanistan and Pakistan and consequently India became one of the
minor pawns on the US chess board. New tensions developed in trade and
environment negotiations. Issues, which were circumvented in the
nuclear negotiations, such as NPT, CTBT and FMCT surfaced once again.
Nuclear trade with the US seemed to recede further.

India stood firm in all this turbulence, sticking to the terms of the
123 agreement and conducting business as usual in other areas. It
moved slowly, but steadily on the unfinished agenda of the nuclear
deal and kept throwing the ball to the US court. It reacted in no
uncertain terms to the United Nations Security Council resolution on
non-proliferation, which demanded universal adherence to the NPT. The
new question raised by certain circles as to what was India prepared
to do in return for the favours received was answered in concrete
terms, listing out the tremendous gains the US had made in the Indian
market, particularly defense market and the strategic gains in Asia.
India did not feel obliged to announce any concessions on nuclear
issues during the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington. At the end of
the visit, India had nothing to show as concrete gains, but the
continuity in the relationship was stressed and the indispensability
of India was conceded.

China was more inscrutable than ever before in 2009 in its dealings
with India. As Ambassador Jaishankar said at Sichuan University,
“rarely a week went by without an alarmist or negative story about
India-China relations’, but when he went to work, “the challenge was
to keep up with the increasing engagement between the two nations.”
This disconnect was perplexing, with the pendulum swinging between the
“bhai-bhaism” and the prospect of another 1962. India did not provoke
China in the least, except that the Prime Minister visited Arunachal
Pradesh and let the Dalai Lama visit his followers in Tawang. Where
was the need to threaten to cut India into thirty pieces or to build a
string of pearls to contain India? China, which is in a tight embrace
with the United States, kept complaining about India seeking
friendships far away while neglecting its neighbours. Here again,
India remained calm to a fault, even denying the incursions and the
tensions on the border and thus losing credibility. The year of
friendship is still in place in 2010 and we harmonized positions on
climate change and Doha Round as though nothing had happened. Gandhiji
must have been proud of his countrymen for their patience and
perseverance. But one hopes that the apparent projection of normalcy
does not result in a corresponding lethargy about India’s preparedness
for an explosion in the Himalayas, which is not unthinkable.

In dealing with the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, India has
demonstrated both calm and determination. Nobody believed that a war
was the right response, but nobody doubted that there would be no
alternative to war if a similar attack took place again. Perhaps, it
was that message that worked with Pakistan. The people of India
rejected the soft approach of Sharm-al-Sheikh and brought the
Government back on track. Pakistan, which had declared the composite
dialogue as pointless, is now clamouring for its resumption. India
lost nothing by refusing to do business with a Pakistan, still seeking
to make its choice among Zardaris, Gilanis and Kayanis. It is not
enough that Pakistan refrains from further attacks. It must pay for
its past sins.

The Afpak strategy may have its flaws, but the US is undoubtedly
fighting the Indian battle too, though their focus is Al-Qaeda. They
may have a deal with the Taliban as part of the exit plan for 2001 and
they may let the Lashkar-e-Toiba play havoc in Kashmir and India, but
if the US breaks the back of terrorism in the region, it cannot but
help the Indian cause. The problem may come when the US abandons
Afghanistan and allies itself with Pakistan and we may have to fight
our own battles, but the US action till then will be to our advantage.
It was not for nothing that the PM virtually endorsed the US presence
in Afghanistan for the first time.

The clash on climate change in Copenhagen is yet to be played out, but
nothing that happens there is going to make any material change to
India. We are pledged to do what we can to protect the environment and
if there is any funding or technology comes in the way, it will be a
bonus. No damage will be done to our relations with anyone even if we
remain unmoved under the pressure on us to accept legally binding
commitments. No one doubts India’s need to deploy its resources for
economic development and the Prime Minister’s assurance that our per
capita emissions will never exceed the per capita emissions of the
developed world is a clear enough commitment, which cannot be

The visit of the Prime Minister to Russia and the deal struck there on
nuclear matters came as the jewel in the crown for the UPA Government
in 2009. Russia still reaps the harvest of the seeds sown by the
Soviet Union and it can do no wrong in the eyes of the Indian public.
Ambassador Kanwal Sibal, till recently our envoy in Moscow, found the
Russian positions in the Joint Statement short of expectations and
claims. But, unfettered by domestic laws, it gave India a nuclear
agreement, free of the constraints imposed by the 123 Agreement. But
President Medvedev made it clear that Russia was not interested in
expanding the nuclear club any more, in an apparent to the Prime
Minister’s statement in Washington that India was ready to sign the
NPT as a nuclear weapons state.

India’s policy to move from nonalignment to multiple alliances, with
those who share the Indian perspectives and even limited alliances on
specific issues seemed to succeed in the year that has become history.
Many of our international aspirations have remained unfulfilled and
the challenges are many, but India remains steadfast in a turbulent

T.P. Sreenivasan,
Former Ambassador of India,
Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.
Member, National Security Advisory Board, New Delhi
Cell (91) 9847721656

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