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political acumen

Above and beyond

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Top-notch diplomacy, carefully articulated, is now urgently required in ties with our neighbours.


It is not an exaggeration to say that Indian ambassadors posted in our immediate neighbourhood perform a task that often goes far beyond their diplomatic brief. They are essential tools in India's strategic imprint and outreach. A logical corollary of this is that it is necessary for these Indian envoys to be a little like Caesar's wife.

This week, we were subject to a unique spectacle. Mohamed Nasheed, former president of Maldives was in town to tell everybody that he was the wronged one in the recent regime change in Male. That what happened on February 7 was not a president resigning, but a coup by powerful, shadowy forces, which the rest of the world did not recognise adequately. "Having written a book on 200 years of coups in Maldives (a book that is banned) I knew one when I saw one, " said Nasheed.

That's fine. But his comments about the alleged role of the Indian envoy, D N Muley are deeply unsettling. On the day of the "coup" Nasheed said he called Muley for help and the high commissioner in turn "asked for a note. " Indian bureaucrats famously love their files, but a note, on the day of a coup? In 1988, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who Nasheed is convinced is behind present chaos in the Maldives, rang Rajiv Gandhi for help. Within hours Indian forces landed there to help him out. And Nasheed was a greater favourite in the Indian system than Gayoom ever was. This time too, Indian naval warships conducting exercises in the Bay of Bengal were put on standby to rush to Maldives if the need arose.

But Nasheed also said that his conversations with the Indian envoy during those critical hours were conducted on Gayoom's brother, Abdulla Yameen's phone. Dark insinuations, about the Indian envoy's alleged links with Gayoom and his family, are being casually tossed about by Nasheed and his entourage. If true, serious questions need be asked within the Indian system.

There may be serious gaps in Nasheed's own narrative, but we have no excuse to not have a clearer one of our own;and defensible assessments of situations in our own region. At the very least, the government should share their assessment that in the past couple of years, New Delhi had tried to explain to Nasheed that he was on a collision course. In this age of instant gratification, such clarity is as essential for policy-making as it is for public discourse. The Indian government suffers a credibility deficit, and there is ample reason for that.

In 2001, for some strange reason, we convinced ourselves that Musharraf was ready for a 'deal' in Agra, which turned out an unmitigated disaster. In Nepal, nobody thought the Maoists would win so handsomely, which left our policy blindsided. For the next few years, we did our damnedest to stymie them. It has taken far-sighted diplomatic vision by Jayant Prasad to break the logjam in Kathmandu and rescue both India and Nepal from the political mess we were in.

We cannot emphasise enough the importance of taking the game forward in Bangladesh. A fatalistic acceptance of domestic political problems cannot do. So Mamata is the problem? There must be fifty ways to deal with this. We pussyfooted around with Mahinda Rajapakse and then humiliated Sri Lanka by kowtowing to domestic Tamil politics. We don't gain if we contribute to our neighbours' losses.

So here is my prescription. India has to invest much more in its neighbourhood, and our first line of defence, our face in neighbouring countries, are the men and women we put there in our missions. Their political and diplomatic acumen has to be sharper than all others. There was a time when our best and brightest fought to be posted to Washington or London, or even fanciful Europe. Those days are gone. We can send a fairly junior official to London, but we need to think twice before picking a candidate for, say, Colombo or Male. A stint in the neighbourhood should be mandatory for young diplomats, just as they should have more than a passing acquaintance with domestic politics.
We should think nothing about yanking diplomats out from other parts of the world if we think they can make a difference in this region.

More important, we need greater political investment here too. It was wonderful to see the leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj, handing over Indian projects in Sri Lanka. Mamata Banerjee should have been asked to lead the Indian delegation to Bangladesh last year. Nitish Kumar is our natural political outreach to Nepal and Bhutan. Send the Manipur, Nagaland and Assam chief ministers to Bangladesh and Myanmar and Thailand. We should have more parliamentarians, particularly the young 'uns, and ministers flying in and out of these capitals.

Our neighbourhood should be politically and diplomatically precious. Otherwise, as Nasheed said to Indian journalists this week, "what's the point in you being a great power?"

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