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Local hand in foreign lands

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VOX POP: Engaging with the DMK or even the AIADMK over the Lanka issue could have saved the Centre diplomatic embarrassment. (Left) A family and (below) DMK leaders protest against the Rajapaksa regime

The Manmohan Singh government opened itself to criticism yet again when it capitulated to withdrawal threats from ally DMK and overturned stated policy to vote against Sri Lanka at the UN for human rights violations on the island's minority Tamil population. Had the Prime Minister and his men engaged as they should have with the DMK or, for that matter, with the AIADMK government in Chennai, perhaps they would have seen the writing on the wall and saved themselves from being buffeted by a political storm that invited domestic censure and international embarrassment.

Sri Lanka lost no time in taking a swipe at the government's "domestic political compulsions" and the PM humbled himself with an explanatory letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa that some analysts feel sounded too apologetic.

It is astonishing that the Manmohan Singh government should have committed an unforced error of this kind. No one knows better than this PM the clout that regional parties have come to wield in a coalition era. They have demonstrated their power time and again, not only on domestic issues but increasingly, on foreign policy decisions as well. Mamata Banerjee, for instance, managed to scuttle, with a tantrum and a veto at the eleventh hour, the proposed Teesta river water sharing agreement with Bangladesh last year. Her intervention completely punctured the PM's first bilateral visit in the neighbourhood and remains a stumbling block even today in the country's relationship with Dhaka.

Before her, the Left, which was the chief pillar of support during Manmohan Singh's first term in office, almost derailed the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, touted as a strategic game-changer for India. The government had to go in for a dramatic change of partners, dumping the Left for Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party, and almost fell in the process, before it was able to ink the agreement.

The Lanka fiasco must surely serve as a reality check for the mandarins in South Block (home to the PMO and the external affairs ministry) who are finding it difficult to accept that foreign policy decisions are increasingly being impacted by domestic considerations. There was a time when an Indira Gandhi or a Rajiv Gandhi, bolstered by the strength of numbers in Parliament, were the unchallenged arbiters of India's destiny in the world. Not any longer.

The shift in the balance of power, from the Centre to the states, has enabled regional parties to muscle their way into an area that was once regarded as the exclusive preserve of the PM and his (or her) foreign office. Today, national and strategic interests cannot be determined solely by the view from the top of Raisina Hill. They will necessarily be splintered by the regional prism and as democracy entrenches itself in the body politic, coloured by public opinion as well.

This need not be a handicap. All democracies, including the United States which is the last standing Superpower, are guided by domestic interests in the conduct of international diplomacy. But it does impose certain responsibilities if the government at the Centre wishes to avoid embarrassments of the kind the present establishment has just been through with Sri Lanka.

One thing the government needs to learn is the art of consensus-building through regular political dialogue with allies as well as opposition parties. The other is to craft a public diplomacy platform with a well-thought-out communications strategy to shape and educate popular opinion on foreign policy.

"Times have changed. Diplomacy can no longer be conducted in rarefied circles like it was done in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, " says retired external affairs ministry secretary Rajiv Sikri. "Today, governments have to be upfront and transparent about the decisions they take and communicate them in a proper manner. They have to keep both their allies and the public in the loop. It is unfortunate that the hallmark of the present government has been diplomacy by stealth. "

Sikri recalls that Jawaharlal Nehru used to write fortnightly letters to all chief ministers in which he explained his decisions, including those related to foreign policy. "He believed that foreign policy required a national consensus and tried to build it through these letters, " Sikri says. The practice was abandoned by his daughter Indira Gandhi and no PM has revived it.

But others had their own methods of evolving a consensus on tricky issues. The late Congress PM Narasimha Rao shared an excellent rapport with BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee and put it to good use to push through contentious initiatives like the dialogue with the then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and the agreement with China to freeze troop positions along the line of actual control. Former Indian diplomats remember that Rao would often put his arm around Vajpayee and take him aside at an official dinner for a private chat.

When Vajpayee became PM, he too was equally concerned about maintaining a broad based consensus on foreign policy. He used the old IFS (Indian Foreign Service) tie between his principal secretary Brajesh Mishra and Natwar Singh, who was Sonia Gandhi's foreign affairs advisor, to keep the Congress in the loop on various matters.

The Manmohan Singh government's record on this front has been rather poor. Not that it has not tried to craft consensus. It just doesn't seem to know how to go about it. For instance, by the time it woke up to the need for political support on the nuclear deal, it was too late. The battlelines had been drawn. Worse, instead of opening a direct political dialogue with allies and opposition leaders, Manmohan Singh relied on bureaucrats like the foreign secretary and the National Security Advisor to brief them.

Says a retired foreign service officer who did not wish to be named, "Bureaucrats cannot substitute for politicians. Allies and opposition parties are looking for a political dialogue, best done by the PM himself or by a senior leader nominated by him. This is one lesson that should have been learnt from the nuclear deal experience. "

It wasn't. When the time came to get Mamata's goahead for the Teesta agreement with Bangladesh, Manmohan Singh deputed his NSA to talk to her. Later, she was to complain to her aides that she had expected the PM to send more than a "babu" to brief her. Contrast this to the high level political negotiations behind the 1996 Ganga water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. The then United Front government assigned foreign minister I K Gujral to hold discussions with West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu. After seven rounds of talks, Basu gave the green signal and the agreement was signed in his presence. At the very least, Mamata wanted similar handling.

"We live in a flat world today, " says former foreign secretary Shyam Saran. "It is very important for governments to be nimble on foreign policy issues. If they don't get their story out first, someone else will and the initiative would have been lost."

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