A year of lassitude
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Eight and a half years ago, the UPA government inherited an ambitious foreign policy agenda from the BJP-led NDA regime. Breaking the defensive tradition of Indian diplomacy, Atal Bihari Vajpayee set out to transform Delhi's ties with America, China, and Pakistan.
If Vajpayee's decision to conduct the nuclear tests in May 1998 put India in crisis mode with the three countries, his post-Pokhran diplomacy attempted to restructure relations with all of them. Vajpayee sought to end India's prolonged international nuclear isolation in collaboration with the US and find a way to address India's long-standing territorial disputes with Pakistan and China.
Unlike the Congress leadership, Vajpayee had no baggage to carry from the past and was unconstrained by the conventional wisdom on foreign policy. Although he could not bring any of his initiatives to fruition, he successfully altered the political framework for engaging America, China and Pakistan.
In the first term of the UPA government, Manmohan Singh ran with the baton. He invested much of his political capital to negotiate and implement the historic civil nuclear initiative and deepen the partnership with the US. Vajpayee's search for an early boundary settlement with China saw the first substantive results under Singh when Delhi and Beijing signed an agreement in 2005 defining the political parameters and guiding principles for the resolution of the dispute.
With Pakistan, Vajpayee's exploration on Kashmir became a full-fledged negotiation under UPA 1. It is now well-known that the back channel between Singh and General Pervez Musharraf made much progress in the only serious talks on Kashmir since 1962-63. During UPA 1, Delhi and Rawalpindi also came close to finding mutually acceptable solutions to the disputes on Siachen and Sir Creek.
Delhi's political lassitude under UPA 2, however, resulted in the steady loss of momentum on all the three fronts. The mismanagement of the nuclear liability legislation has cast a dark shadow over the prospects for India's civil nuclear cooperation with other powers.
Having put in so much political effort into lifting the international technological blockade in the first term, the UPA shot itself in the foot in the second. Hustled into passing a bad legislation, Delhi has put off foreign and domestic suppliers to India's nuclear programme.
On the bilateral front, the relationship with the US has hit a plateau. While there is a new breadth and depth to the ties, Delhi has seemed unable to muster the political will to advance in such critical areas as defence. With China, the talks on the boundary disputes have stalled in the second phase focused on mutually acceptable territorial give-and-take. The outrageous terror attack on Mumbai at the end of November 2008 complicated the pursuit of the ambitious agenda towards Pakistan.
To his credit, Singh revived the dialogue with Pakistan despite much internal political resistance. While there has been some progress on visa and trade liberalisation, Pakistan's inability to bring the plotters of 26/11 to book has cast a shadow over the bilateral ties.
As we look ahead to 2013, three major challenges confront India. One, with India's economic slowdown, many of the diplomatic advantages flowing from the international perception of India's rise have begun to dissipate. Two, the benign regional environment that India enjoyed in the last decade is beginning to fade away. A decade-long stability in Afghanistan could disappear as the US prepares to end its combat role there by 2014. To the east, the long peace in Asia is yielding place to new conflicts.
Finally, the bilateral relations among America, Pakistan and China are beginning to evolve rapidly and generate new foreign policy challenges for Delhi and constrain its diplomacy.
After two years of recrimination, America is moving closer to Pakistan as part of its effort to manage its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan's natural geographic advantages have put Rawalpindi back in the driver's seat in the international search for a political settlement in Afghanistan. China's growing political assertiveness and America's pivot to Asia have begun to put Beijing and Washington at odds with each other in Asia for the first time since the Sino-US rapprochement in the early 1970s.
In dealing with this extremely demanding regional environment, Delhi will be sorely tempted to sit back and point to the inevitable negative consequences for India's own security. Doing nothing will also paralyse Delhi as America and China circle each other in Asia. The sensible alternative is to initiate major diplomatic moves towards America, Pakistan and China. In the past, India did not have the capacity to influence the outcomes in the bilateral relations among the three countries.
India, today, has the heft to influence the geopolitical dynamic around it. In pushing for improved relations with one, India's ability to enhance ties with the other two will significantly improve. Masterly inactivity, on the other hand, would surely make India lose ground with all the three.
Vajpayee will be remembered for boldly re-imagining India's national security strategy under difficult circumstances. Manmohan Singh would not want to go down as the one who lost his nerve when so much was in the realm of the possible for India's foreign policy.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express', firstname.lastname@example.org
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