Manmohan Singh’s Foreign Policy Legacy

Manmohan Singh’s Foreign Policy Legacy

With the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which ended last Sunday, the curtain is coming down on Part II of the Manmohan Singh era (2009-2014) in India’s foreign policy. It has turned out to be a controversial period with hardly anyone in the Indian opinion saying a nice word about the way foreign-policy has been conducted under Manmohan Singh’s watch. How did this sad ending come about? 

There can be no two opinions that Manmohan Singh has been an unabashedly «pro-American» prime minister who chose to view Indian foreign-policy directions at any given time on any conceivable issue paramountly through the prism of the country’s relations with the United States. His world vision is imbued with the belief that India’s medium and long term interests – «enlightened interests», he would at times claim without elaborating – devolve upon forging a pivotal strategic partnership with the US, with which he wished India to move «shoulder-to-shoulder», as he once put it, into the future on the global arena. He will be long remembered for this in India – as well as in the US. 

Today the Manmohan Singh government has entered the «lame duck» period. An era is ending in Indian politics and another is struggling to be born… However, no matter the uncertainties marking the coming two-month period of political transition in India, the outcome of the 2014 parliamentary poll can be predicted with one hundred percent certainty in one respect – namely, that India’s next prime minister is not going to have in his political DNA the sort of passionate intensity for the US-Indian strategic partnership that Manmohan Singh possessed. 

Indeed, it will be for historians to judge whether such a messianic zeal for the US-Indian strategic partnership that Manmohan Singh possessed was warranted or not. Equally, it remains an enigma wrapped in a mystery why and how Manmohan Singh would arrive at such a world vision at a time of great fluidity in world politics when the best and the brightest even in the US increasingly lack conviction about America’s «exceptionalism» or its capacity or need to be the charioteer of the world order. 

Manmohan Singh himself has not cared to give any intellectual construct to his foreign-policy doctrine, if he has one at all. Nor has he bothered to explain how he would co-relate his US-centric foreign-policy vision with India’s priority needs as an emerging power at this juncture. Which leaves one to suspect a high probability that neither he nor his close aides possibly thought through deeply enough the profound issues affecting the international system and contemporary world politics through which India needs to navigate its passage. 

There is also a systemic issue involved here. In the foreign-policy sphere Manmohan Singh surrounded himself with aides whose primary quality in his estimation would have been that they were dependable «loyalists» who followed up on his instructions without demur. It was, quintessentially, the predicament of a politician pitchforked into high office without a political base of his own or a coalition of diehard supporters. 

Having said that, Manmohan Singh who is often criticized for not being an assertive enough prime minister vis-à-vis his cabinet colleagues, proved to be a «hands-on» prime minister in the foreign policy sphere when it came to the US-Indian relationship in all its dimensions. A telling example is the role he played in downsizing India’s relations with Iran. Simply put, the atrophying of the India-Iran relationship was a deliberate policy for Delhi during the recent decade, because that was what Washington expected India to do till such time as the US-Iranian relationship got normalized. 

Manmohan Singh has been known to be generally uneasy with the Indian foreign-policy bureaucracy and the resultant sense of insecurity incrementally resulted in a shift in the locus of policymaking away from the foreign ministry to the prime minister’s office. In institutional terms, this was not at all a good thing to happen because an optimal performance can never be possible without utilizing the available talent in the foreign policy establishment. Besides, policymaking inevitably became far too centralized, which is not a good thing. 

But it also had its advantages. Manmohan Singh could tenaciously cut the Indian cloth wherever he could to suit the sails of the US-Indian dhow. True, his success has been patchy at times, but then, factors his control were also at work as could happen in any other country. For example, ironically enough, on the one issue that proved lethal for the expansion of the US-Indian nuclear cooperation – namely, India’s liability law – Manmohan Singh was frustrated on his tracks due to the political opposition in the parliament. All the King’s men and all the King’s horses could not succeed in the attempts to bypass the law – or, to «tweak» it. In sum, India’s nuclear liability law stays in the statute books even after Manmohan Singh leaves office. 

Manmohan Singh never fought an election in his entire political life and has been the only «unelected» prime minister of India in all these six-and-a-half decades of independence. He was genuinely indifferent – or, insensitive, depending on how one looks at it – to the requirement of the leadership of a representative system to be accountable to public opinion. Unlike leaderships in any major country, Manmohan Singh never felt the need to have media interaction regularly with the media. 

Nonetheless, although Manmohan Singh’s support base among the Indian public might be miniscule, within the foreign-policy elites in the country it was very considerable as he rammed through the US-India nuclear deal in 2008 despite robust political opposition in the parliament and within his own party. As a matter of fact, one saw an entirely different political personality in Manmohan Singh in the crucial run-up to the 2008 nuclear deal. 

Manmohan Singh was supposed to be a «reluctant politician» and so on, but the truth is that he did not mind gerrymandering the support of defectors from other parties (who were induced to defect in somewhat murky circumstances), when it became necessary to cobble together the strength needed in the critical parliament debates to push through the 2008 deal. 

Conceivably, he pulled all stops without any fear or scruples because he could sense that Washington had placed trust in him to see through the deal (which was of course crucial for the advancement of the US’ strategies in Asia), and expected him to «deliver» on it. Manmohan Singh publicly admitted recently that in his own personal estimation, the 2008 nuclear deal with the US stands out as his best foreign-policy achievement as prime minister.

In the recent years as India’s economy began developing rapidly, the process of foreign policy making has also become much more complex. If the process was largely esoteric in character until a decade ago, new pressure groups have appeared in the recent years. Thus, interest groups in India today actively canvass as lobbyists for a strategic partnership with the US. In the early years of his tenure as prime minister, Manmohan Singh enjoyed the support of these groups in advancing the US-Indian strategic partnership. 

However, the crunch time came in the past two-year period or so even as the high expectations of the 2008 nuclear deal began looking unrealistic and frustration set in on both sides – Washington and Delhi. It appears that with covert prodding from the Washington establishment, a campaign began building up in the public domain through last year or more that the US-India relationship was in a state of «drift» and that it was largely due to the bureaucratic lethargy and ineptness of the Indian side. Paradoxically, the very same interest groups, which rooted for Manmohan Singh, now began distancing from him and many have turned unfriendly. Suffice to say, it has been a rather sad ending to a fairy tale insofar as Manmohan Singh is not to be faulted for the inherent contradictions in the US-Indian relationship as such. 

Manmohan Singh may depart from the centre stage of the political arena in another 8-10 weeks from now, but these influential interest groups – lobbyists and fatcats – will not disappear and they will do their utmost to continue to dominate the foreign-policy discourse in India. The matrix is far too complex involving interlocking interest groups – Indian corporate sector, military establishment, corporate media, the expatriate community in the US and so on. 

All in all, therefore, Manmohan Singh may depart from the centre stage of Indian politics but he is assured of an enduring legacy in the foreign-policy trajectory that he launched. 

Tags: India  US  Singh