Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh | Credit: .Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee - Photo: 2014

How Power Centres Pressured India’s Diplomacy

By Shastri Ramachandaran* | IDN-InDepthNewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) – India’s conduct of foreign affairs is increasingly perceived as being at the behest of power centres other than the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Recent events and developments – though not all of these can or need be recalled here – tend to buttress this perception.

Such a perception casts doubts over the earnestness of the Government of India’s action and the way issues are handled; and raises questions about the MEA’s functioning, especially its ability to exercise its prerogatives. In fact, the MEA appears to be losing primacy on its own turf to not only the Prime Minister’s office above but also the state chief ministers ‘below’.

One of the more recent examples of this is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staying away from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Colombo in mid-November 2013. Although Sri Lanka was only the venue and not the focus of the CHOGM, regional parties in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu protested that the summit would be an endorsement of Sri Lanka’s human rights record, and demanded that India should boycott the CHOGM.

None of those opposed to India’s participation was interested in getting it right: that the CHOGM was not about Sri Lanka, not about its human rights record and not about the Tamil-Sinhala conflict and the war crimes accusations it has given rise to.

A fortnight before the meeting came the trial balloons floated to test how New Delhi would react to calls for India’s boycott of the CHOGM. By then, barring Canada, all the Commonwealth countries had committed to attending the CHOGM. Prime Minister Singh was billed to attend it and until a few days before the event the MEA, too, seemed certain that Singh would lead the delegation.

However, the rising crescendo of protests by regional parties in Tamil Nadu, mainly the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), against India attending the CHOGM – because of Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes and human rights abuses – made Manmohan Singh back out of leading the Indian delegation. Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa had already made sure that the CHOGM would not be a flop even if India, under pressure from Tamil parties, played spoiler.


Singh succumbed to the pressures. He allowed Tamil parties, and western interests, to hold him back from the CHOGM. By contrast, Britain, which is at the core of the Commonwealth and flag-bearer of western interests, was under greater pressure than India to keep away from the CHOGM.

But Prime Minister David Cameron, far from giving in to the pressure, outsmarted his critics and India. Prime Minister Singh keeping out had hardly any impact on the CHOGM or the Government of Sri Lanka. All that it did was expose India as a reluctant participant.

In the circumstances, Singh’s staying away from the CHOGM showed that the MEA, once again, had failed to assert itself in foreign affairs.

In the weeks preceding this fiasco, Singh had done exceedingly well on the foreign front. He met world leaders at the UN in New York and President Obama in Washington, attended the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Brunei, and travelled to Moscow and Beijing. These missions were successful and left no doubt that Singh commands rare respect as a statesman at these high tables where he is most at home.

The MEA deserves credit for this string of accomplishments. Yet, in the region, Singh faltered precisely when he should let MEA prevail against, for instance, the pressure of regional parties – be it the Trinamool Congress in Bengal when dealing with Bangladesh or the AIADMK and DMK Tamil Nadu when it concerns Sri Lanka.

Earlier, in August, the MEA’s démarche on the issue of 114 Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan jails and seeking their release did not earn the government a single cheer. Why? Because the MEA’s belated action was seen as being taken under pressure from Tamil parties; or merely going through the motions to placate these parties.

The MEA moved on the matter only after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa drew Prime Minister Singh’s attention to the issue – of Indian fishermen being attacked and abducted by the Sri Lankan navy and held in prison – three times in the course of a week through well-publicised letters. This reinforced the feeling that the MEA acted only when driven to do so by pressure from above and below. It should not have required successive missives from Jayalalithaa to Singh to impress on the MEA the urgency of resolving the issue.

Learning from Tamil Nadu, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, stumped the MEA: she thwarted the Government of India from signing a treaty with Bangladesh on sharing the Teesta river waters. It was most embarrassing for Prime Minister Singh – at a time when India-Bangladesh relations were at the height of their warmth – to be stopped in his tracks from signing a treaty he had proposed during talks with his counterpart in Dhaka. In fact, Banerjee had refused to accompany Singh on this visit to Bangladesh. Banerjee’s body blow to India-Bangladesh relations also hit another big initiative, viz. the Land Boundary Agreement between the neighbours that India had proposed.

While Chief Minister Banerjee cannot be faulted for wanting a say in an accord relating to her state’s water resources, the Government of India ought to have anticipated it and secured her prior consent to avoid the faux pas of the Prime Minister proposing a treaty only to be vetoed by a chief minister. The MEA’s agenda was scuttled by Chief Minister Banerjee.

Assurances with little effect

Subsequent visits to Bangladesh by India’s Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh and President Pranab Mukherjee, and their reassurances that the water-sharing treaty and boundary accord would go through, have had little effect.

Sooner or later other chief ministers, too, are likely to intervene in the interests of their state. For instance, Kerala wanted a say in how the MEA deals with the fallout of the new Saudi Arabian law on employment of expatriates, as most Indian labour is from this state.

Ad hoc responses to regional demands, as is happening now, undermine the MEA. Regional parties have their own compulsions for pandering to their vote banks. As the MEA is no longer in a position to ignore such demands, it should recognise the advantage in engaging, where necessary, state governments and regional parties in the formulation and execution of policy.

If the MEA grasps the rationale (and underlying sentiment) of these demands when formulating policy, then it can take into account regional concerns and, at the same time, not allow regional parties to dictate diplomatic outcomes.

* The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. This article originally appeared in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs Volume 103, Issue 3, June 2014, which carried it with the headline: Who Handles India’s Foreign Affairs: States, Prime Minister’s Office or the Ministry of External Affairs? It is being reproduced with their permission. [IDN-InDepthNews – July 11, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh | Credit: .Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee

Shastri Ramachandran’s previous IDN articles:

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