The Congress has kept a low profile in the widening national debate on how India should react to the crisis in Sri Lanka. One spokesman has cautiously talked of preserving Sri Lanka’s integrity. However, anonymous partymen are already upholding Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send Indian troops to the island in 1987. The implication being that intervention should not be ruled out today. This is exactly the sort of policy din expected of the official opposition party. This confusion recently reached new levels over the party’s stand on the minimum nuclear deterrent. Ms Sonia Gandhi had given a thumbs up to the idea when Mr Bill Clinton came calling. A small coterie overturned this by claiming, on the basis of sentiment rather than historical accuracy, that endorsing a deterrent ran counter to Rajiv Gandhi’s position. The Congress position on the comprehensive test ban treaty is that a "national consensus" is needed. But formulating such a consensus first requires the country’s political parties have a perspective. Consensus cannot arise from a vacuum. The Congress has similarly alternated between praise and criticism of the Lahore peace process and India’s response to the Kargil conflict.
An opposition party can take three different tacks on foreign policy. First, it can be opportunistic and oppose any act of the government. Politically this is not without a certain logic. The general public pays attention to foreign policy mostly when the government commits a faux pas. Therefore, when blunders occur, a perpetually critical opposition appears remarkably foresighted. Second, the opposition can decide there is no room for partisan interests in foreign policy. The party in power speaks on behalf of the country to the rest of the world. Opposition criticism therefore only undermines the national interest. Finally, and more sensibly, the opposition formulates a worldview that will allow it to join with or divide from the government, depending on the merits of specific issues. Unfortunately, the Congress lacks a contemporary worldview. Nehruvian dictums are obsolete post-Cold War. However, the party seems unable to develop an alternative hypothesis. This ensures its interventions are ad hoc and vulnerable to pressure groups whose only strength lies in decibels or access. It also means policies decided one day are overturned the next.
The Congress is reportedly trying to put its house in order. A special cell to decide on nuclear policy has been established. However, its formulations still seem blurred. The party is expected to continue to avoid endorsing a deterrent and still genuflect to the Rajiv Gandhi plan for nuclear abolition. It will not reject the CTBT out of hand. This has the odour of political compromise rather than hardnosed security thinking.