Manmohan Singh at a meeting in New Delhi with teachers who were chosen for the national awards. (PTI)
New Delhi, Sept. 3: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has signalled a sabbatical from a long season of domestic picket-fencing and is set to swivel focus on foreign policy ventures whose centrepiece remains the elusive search for a trust breakthrough with Pakistan.
Cleaving off from the extended, and often turbulent, monsoon session of Parliament, Singh is set to take a recess from public engagement on domestic disquiet over a range of issues from corruption to the economic slide, leaving the battling for his party and ministerial colleagues to do.
When Singh departs for St Petersburg tomorrow to summit with G20 leaders, the Prime Minister will be embarking on a hectic, though he’d hope, less exacting, eight-week international schedule that will take him from the US in the west to Brunei in the south-east with Moscow midway.
Today’s assurance to the Houses of Parliament on continuing to hunt missing coal ministry files could well have been the last of his public interventions on domestic issues for a while, senior officials have told The Telegraph.
“The Prime Minister has addressed most economic concerns including what his government is able to do on the unstable rupee, he has clarified his position on corruption and what the government is doing, the critical food and land bills are through. I think hereon you will see a pullback from the home front for a period,” an official said.
Asked if the Prime Minister might be dusting off the domestic front with a sense of relief, the official said: “Let’s put it this way, the Prime Minister does enjoy external policy, especially forums like G20, where top global leaders have often looked up to him. With the world economic situation still volatile, what happens at summits such as the G20 often has a huge domestic drift. The big table effort is eventually all directed at how it impacts us at home.”
At least two of his interlocutors at the G20 summit, the Prime Minister is set to meet individually in the weeks to follow — a bilateral with US President Barack Obama in late September, just before Singh addresses the UN General Assembly, and a Moscow date with Russian President Vladimir Putin in October. An Asean-India summit in Brunei in the first half of October will occasion more one-on-one interaction with regional heads of government. The St Petersburg stage too is being prepared for a sideline bilateral with President Putin; officials have hinted there could be impromptu pull-away interactions with other world leaders, including President Obama.
The G20 is a strictly economic forum, but with the crisis in Syria ticking away, all bets are off on whether urgent geopolitics can be kept off the table. Not least because critical oil and gas concerns are looped into the swirl around Syria. As one official in the ministry of external affairs said: “When the world’s top leaders meet face to face in a room, nothing is off the table. The G20 architecture is purely economic and the economy is no less urgent an international matter, but who can tell what leaders might also talk about?”
But for all the world capitals the Prime Minister will be jetting to and back over the next few weeks, key foreign policy attention will continue to hover in the neighbourhood. Despite the recent spike in cross-border hostilities, preparations are quietly afoot to tie up during the UNGA at New York later this month the first Indo-Pak interaction at the prime ministerial level since Nawaz Sharif took office earlier this year.
New Delhi is yet to affirm the possibility of a Singh-Nawaz meeting, but a firmer clue of its intent may come from the fact that it has not said no despite the resumed clamour for “breaking off ties” following the killing of five jawans along the LoC last month. New Delhi and Islamabad have traded allegations on the incident without coming to an agreed version of what happened. New Delhi has also not ceased to remind the Pakistani establishment of the need for “demonstrable action” on those it holds responsible for the 26/11 Mumbai terror assault, most notably the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed.
But while major issues remain unresolved, and new irritants have regularly popped up, there are contra-indications of progress. Away from shrill cross-border rhetoric, back-channel efforts, renewed vigorously after Sharif took over as Prime Minister, have met moved towards what one official called “restoring the ground for trust” between leaders.
The Prime Minister’s establishment is quietly determined to take whatever domestic opposition there is to a New York assignation with Sharif on the chin and move on. “This is consistent with the Prime Minister’s fundamental understanding that there exists no better option but to engage Pakistan in dialogue,” a source said. “We have grouses, we have differences, but how do we go about having them addressed other than by talking?”
The resumed back-channel effort, the sources were at pains to emphasise, is a “long term enterprise” with agenda papers that go well beyond cranking a New York platform for the two Prime Ministers to come together on.
A Pakistan visit by Manmohan Singh before the end of his premiership next summer? Nobody’s talking about that at the moment — “too far in the distance” — but nobody’s ruling out the circumstances could emerge to make that possible. That may well prompt another domestic fire for Singh to fight, but the Pakistan wager is one he has long nursed on his backburner.