Time for a return to a bipartisan foreign policy

The evolution of India’s foreign policy over the last 60 odd years since its Independence has been marked by periods of idealism, pragmatism and realism, in varying degrees, but the pursuit of bipartisan consensus was a sine qua non for the governments of the day. However, that began to erode around the turn of the century when the BJP-led coalition was in power and it continued into the first decade of the new millennium after the Congress-led alliance wrested power. If the first five-year term of the Congress-led government between 2004 and 2009 was consumed by the protracted negotiations over the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the current term (2009 -2014) of the government has drawn sharp reactions from political parties over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Pakistan policy. Ironically for a man widely acknowledged as a scholar and a gentleman politician, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attempts to invest political capital into improving India’s relations with Pakistan has polarised the nation and invited criticism from sections of the elite and civil society alike. Compounding the woes of the government and its foreign policy advisers is a more recent phenomenon of how a combination of federalism and competitive politics is allowing certain states and/or regional parties to exercise a veto over the conduct of foreign relations, especially with countries in India’s neighbourhood that share a contiguous border with them.

The recurrent ceasefire violations and infiltration attempts by Pakistan, which coincided with the meeting of the prime ministers of India and Pakistan on the margins of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, has exercised the people and encouraged some of them to call for a review of engagement with Pakistan. Critics of the government’s Pakistan policy would argue that they saw it coming when an Indian soldier was beheaded at the Line of Control in January; when five more Indian soldiers were killed in August; and the 26 September twin terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir claimed more lives. However, the government has maintained that engagement with the elected civilian government in Pakistan must be kept up; also, that the New York meeting was but one in a long list of bilateral engagements starting with the 2006 NAM summit at Havana in Cuba, the 2008 Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) at Beijing in China, the 2008 United Nations General Assembly session in New York, the 2009 SCO summit at Yekaterinburg in Russia, the 2009 NAM summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh and the 2010 Saarc summit at Thimphu in Bhutan.

I believe India needs to forge the broadest possible national consensus on the way forward for relations with Pakistan. More importantly, the government must make efforts to return to the bipartisan foreign policy that has stood India well for half a century and more. In an increasingly federal polity, it behoves of the government to heed public opinion. And if it follows that talks with Pakistan should be reviewed, then the least the government can do is to put it into a holding pattern (if moratorium is a less acceptable term) till conditions become conducive for resuming engagement with Pakistan. More so, after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself told the media accompanying him on his two-nation tour to Russia and China in October that he is disappointed by Pakistan’s response to his peace overtures in spite of a general agreement on both sides that peace and tranquillity should be maintained on the Line of Control and the international border.

Originally Posted in The Broad Mind by Takshashila Institute.

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