The external affairs minister, Kunwar Natwar Singh, began well. He said the right things, made the right moves. This is not surprising for someone trained in diplomacy at the age of 22 — and as long as 51 years ago. He spent the next 31 years in the civil service practising what he was taught, and then did a short stint as minister of state in the external affairs ministry in a different role as a politician.
But before the week was out, Natwar Singh, the diplomat, gave way to Natwar Singh, the individual. The new foreign-policy team in South Block, made up of Singh and the national security adviser, J.N. Dixit, has the potential to be a dream team, if only the new minister can resist the urge to be himself. If Singh fails in this effort, disaster awaits South Block at a time when Indian diplomacy is at the crossroads and facing some of its biggest challenges since Jawaharlal Nehru steered the country’s foreign policy along pioneering lines uncharted by any country in history.
The danger of “Natwar Singh acting like Natwar Singh” apart, the threat to Indian diplomacy in the new dispensation comes from what the new minister is likely to say and do out of his loyalty and debt of gratitude to the Nehru-Gandhi family. That loyalty, incidentally, is genuine, unlike in the vast majority of Congressmen, who are at their best in the party’s culture of sycophancy.
The threat to India’s foreign policy and national interest stemming from such loyalty was in evidence when Singh made jaws drop in South Block last weekend by announcing in Jaipur that Sonia Gandhi would visit Pakistan. India and Pakistan have agreed on a formula for talks, which, so far, remains unaffected by the change in government in New Delhi. Singh does not need anyone to tell him that a visit to Pakistan by Sonia is unlike a trip to Karachi by her two children to watch cricket. To announce a visit by Sonia to Pakistan at this stage is to pre-empt those talks, the schedule of which is based on the rationale that an improvement in relations with Pakistan is a process of graduation.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government insisted that talks should begin at the level of joint secretaries and move up, depending on the progress made at each step. For this reason, it resisted the idea of a meeting between the foreign ministers, Yashwant Sinha and Khurshid Kasuri. Singh’s announcement that the supreme leader of the ruling alliance would visit Pakistan has undercut a peace process that held out hopes of some accommodation between Islamabad and New Delhi.
Besides, where does this leave the prime minister, Manmohan Singh' He may be a political light-weight at home, but in bypassing him for the first concrete foreign policy announcement by the new government, the external affairs minister has diminished the prime minister in the eyes of the world: much more than anything that the left parties have so far done to undermine the new prime minister’s authority or his government’s credibility. Indeed, very much more in this case, because Manmohan Singh was born in Gah, now in Pakistan and this had potential for dealing with Pakistan as in the case of the former prime minister, I.K. Gujral.
By inviting Sonia to visit Pakistan and getting Singh to thoughtlessly accept that invitation on her behalf, hurriedly and without due consideration of its consequences, Pervez Musharraf has once again shown how good he is at manipulation. This should not have come as a surprise to an external affairs minister who has watched and understood how Musharraf has manipulated the Americans, the Australians and the British since September 11, 2001, and the entire Commonwealth in the most recent example of its re-admission to that organization.
Musharraf stands to gain in three ways by getting Sonia to accept his invitation and eventually making sure that her visit to Pakistan takes place. First, he undercuts Manmohan Singh as prime minister, and in turn, the decision-making process in the Indian government, where, by convention, the most important foreign-policy decisions are taken by the prime minister’s office, not the external affairs ministry.
Second, Pakistan fears J.N. Dixit because they know from their experience of dealing with him — as high commissioner in Islamabad and later as foreign secretary — that he is someone they cannot play games with. Dixit was also part of Indira Gandhi’s team, which broke up Pakistan and created Bangladesh: so they realize what he is capable of. If Sonia goes to Pakistan, it is only natural that, until the visit takes place, every decision on Pakistan in New Delhi will take into consideration how it will affect the Congress president. After the visit has taken place, decisions will be made on political considerations built around that event. In that process, decision-making on Pakistan will move from the PMO to 10, Janpath, and it is inevitable that Dixit and the internal security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, both of whom have strong views on Pakistan, will be marginalized. Could Musharraf hope for more' And if it can happen with Pakistan, will not India’s other neighbours want to follow Musharraf’s example'
Musharraf is a keen student of history and precedents. By now, he would have read all the classified accounts of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Islamabad, when Rajiv and Benazir Bhutto were both prime ministers, a visit often derisively referred to as “my-mummy-your-daddy-diplomacy” between India and Pakistan. By emphasizing the Shimla Agreement and the Rajiv Gandhi visit during the last one week and with his selective amnesia about Lahore, Agra and this year’s summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Islamabad, Natwar Singh has shown what damage he can do because of the angularities in his foreign policy vision.
It is fortuitous for Singh that one of his favourite quotes is a remark by Winston Churchill that “eating words has never given me indigestion”. Leaders like Kofi Annan may forgive Singh for his indiscretions in writing and in speech during the 15 years that he was kept out of India’s foreign policy loop — including, very interestingly, the five years of the prime-ministership of fellow Congressman, P.V. Narasimha Rao. But as foreign minister, how will Singh live down a comment, made as recently as August last year, that India’s nuclear tests “made Pakistan a nuclear power. It has given Pakistan permanent defence parity with India. The conventional defence superiority we had for 51 years disappeared in May 1998. And where is our nuclear deterrent'”
The last time Singh was in South Block as junior minister, he opted not to have an Indian Foreign Service officer on his personal staff. Few foreign ministers anywhere in the world keep professional diplomats out of their offices unless there are good reasons to do so. In Singh’s case, it was typical of the man: his firm belief that no candidate selected to the IFS since 1953 is capable of giving him advice. It is no surprise that throughout his tenure in the IFS — and 20 years after he left it — there has been a virtual industry in jokes and anecdotes about the man behind his back among his peers and juniors.
When Singh morphed into a politician from a diplomat, he carried his attitudes with him to his new calling. In 1995, according to Singh’s own account of an episode, the late Phoolan Devi one day telephoned him. Singh’s response was to tell her that she had got the wrong number. As if to say “Why would someone like Phoolan Devi phone me, Natwar Singh'” Phoolan would have been nobody if she was not persevering. She got a meeting with Singh. But Singh phoned her on the morning of their meeting to make sure that she would arrive on time. Why would someone like Phoolan be punctual'
It is not easy for someone to change at the age of 73. If Singh does not, Indian diplomacy will pay a price not only for the external affairs minister’s persona, but equally for his idea that the country’s foreign policy has to be jump-started from where Rajiv Gandhi — whom few of today’s world leaders remember — left off in 1989.