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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 17 New Delhi April 13, 2019

Congress takes the High Road

Saturday 13 April 2019, by M K Bhadrakumar

The Congress’ manifesto for the upcoming elections has come like the rhapsody of raindrops on a parched land—a reformist mani-festo that promises growth and welfare expansions alike and the pledge of a minimum guaranteed income for the poor that has stolen the BJP’s thunder. Equally, the portions relating to foreign policy are notable for several bold constructive ideas.

As curtain comes down on the Modi Government, the remains of the day in the foreign policy arena convey an overpowering feeling of barrenness. Succinctly put, Indian diplomacy over the past five years prioritised the extrapolation of PM Modi’s own political persona on the country’s foreign policy. What ensued was a systematic marginalisation of the foreign policy establishment and its wanton break-up by the PMO into transactional relationships and event management.

Nothing brings home more vividly the surrealism than Modi’s ‘address to the nation’ on the ASAT test recently when a defence capability that existed for many years already was reclaimed as achievement in the immediate run-up to the election. These past five years have been one of those extraordinary periods in modern history when the tectonic plates of the established world order began shifting, necessitating adjustments. But during this transformative period, India lurked in the shade. The leadership was preoccupied in excursions with its eye on its ‘core constituency’.

Thus, the reaffirmation of the guiding principles of foreign policy in the Congress manifesto comes as a road map to get things back on track—‘firm belief in the continued relevance of the policy of friendship, peaceful coexistence, non-alignment, independence of thought and action, and increased bilateral engagement in its relations with other countries of the world’. Without doubt, the catchwords are ‘non-alignment’ and ‘independence of thought and action’, which enable India to optimally safeguard its national interests in an international environment of growing poly-centrism. This is where the proposed advisory body, the National Council on Foreign Policy, is needed to resume an inclusive national discourse. Again, the manifesto differentiates India’s relentless fight against terrorism from the practical need to engage Pakistan on pressing bilateral concerns. It highlights India’s special relations with the SAARC countries.

In systematic terms, two striking ideas appear in the Congress manifesto that have a bearing on foreign policy—one, giving the National Security Council as well as the post of National Security Adviser a statutory basis, and two, resuscitating the moribund National Security Advisory Board and providing a statutory basis to it as well, so that it becomes a ‘permanent, professional advisory body advising the NSC and the government’. These initiatives can be expected to make the three entities accountable to Parliament. Such underpinnings not only enhance the quality of decision-making, but also ensure that intellectual resources and expertise are optimally utilised. Above all, the govern-ment’s decisions become fully accountable. For instance, the country has a right to know what really happened in Pulwama and in the Balakot attack that followed under a nuclear overhang. But all we’ve got instead is the PM and associates in the government whipping up jingoism from public platforms, with anonymous ‘government sources’ planting self-serving versions through media leaks.

However, arguably, the most profound contribution that the manifesto makes is in regard of the approach to the grave situation in J&K. On Modi’s watch, the cauterised Kashmir wound has become gangrenous and has come to haunt diplomacy, which in turn makes foreign policy more ‘Pakistan-centric’. Therefore, it is of critical importance that the Congress manifesto summarily rejects the path of state repression adopted by the Modi Government, which proved futile and has only driven more youth to join the insurgency. Meanwhile, there is also a growing international concern over the prevailing situation in J&K, as apparent in the first-ever rights report by the UN last year calling for international probe.

As the J&K situation deteriorates, the sword of Damocles is hanging over India’s head with the prospect of the Kashmir file reopening after several decades in the UN. Therefore, the manifesto comes like a rescue mission. While waging the fight against terrorism, the door will open for dialogue and reconciliation in a spirit of ‘absolute fairness in dealing with the demands of the people’ as part of a ‘project of inclusiveness’. Importantly, the manifesto proposes the appointment of interlocutors to facilitate talks, changes in the pattern of deployment of forces with focus on border security and stoppage of infiltration completely, and review of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Disturbed Areas Act in their present form. Equally, the manifesto pledges that state Assembly elections in J&K will be held ‘immediately’. For the Indian diplomacy vis-a-vis cross-border terrorism and tensions with Pakistan or while countering the Pakistani campaign on the Kashmir problem, our most convincing narrative is always that there is a genuine democratic process at work in J&K.

Fundamentally, the manifesto seeks to reverse the ‘militarisation’ of foreign policy in the past few years. The Congress is under no compulsion to prove its credentials to take tough decisions. But it can afford to be self-assured that ‘soft power’ is India’s DNA as well as its strategic asset. On the contrary, the BJP, which thrives on the politics of polarisation, cannot compre-hend that this is not only feasible, but only natural for the elected government in Delhi to hold talks without pre-conditions with the alienated people in the Valley.


Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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