The stand-off over Devyani Khobragade may have ended with her return and a US ‘diplomat’ being expelled. What would remain is the impact of this case on India-US relations. This would, perhaps, be the first of many challenges in 2014, especially for a new government.
The new government would not have even thinking time after assuming office to decide policy and take off in foreign affairs. As the new External Affairs Minister would have to hit the ground running, it is imperative that leading political parties spell out the contours of foreign policy in their manifesto.
This is necessary to signal to the world that, whatever the next government’s political colour, the broad national consensus in foreign policy, besides security and strategic affairs, would continue.
While the BJP and the Congress are seasoned players in this regard, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), given its ambitions, would be expected to articulate its approach to foreign policy. Similarly, others aspiring to a say in government formation, such as the Samajwadi Party, the Nationalist Congress Party and the AIADMK, too, cannot remain silent on this score.
First and foremost, the new dispensation would have to impress on Washington that much as New Delhi values India-US strategic partnership and defence cooperation, there can be no compromise when it comes to strict reciprocity; and, this need not stand in the way of the larger, defining objectives of the relationship.
The second priority is India’s policy towards its immediate neighbours. There is a case for greater clarity, elimination of recent strains, strengthening the bonds and keeping out big-power politicking. In Nepal, today, China is more active than India, in nudging political parties towards the formation of a stable government. Consequently, China’s influence is greater. Bangladesh feels let down with India failing to deliver on the promises — including the Teesta river accord and the land boundary agreement — held out during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s high-profile visit in 2012. The US agenda in Bangladesh could destabilise that country and adversely affect India-Bangladesh relations.
In the aftermath of the Devyani case, the US may play hardball with India; not only in Bangladesh, but also in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and wherever else it can. And, thus, the third priority: to reinforce bilateral ties in a way that countries vulnerable to US influence and blandishments remain mindful of India’s strategic concerns. To achieve this, New Delhi needs to go beyond platitudes and show what solid support it can offer to its friends and neighbours. For instance, Afghanistan, which will see the US drawdown, needs funds, weapons and much else beyond encouraging words.
Fourth, there is Pakistan, a permanent challenge, with which India has to pursue peace and, at the same time, fight terrorism. Fifth, India-China relations are stagnant, having lost their upbeat note after last year’s Ladakh incursion. With new leadership in both countries, new vistas have to be explored; and, this can happen only with a new sense of bilateral purpose. Sixth, India’s rather narrow Look East policy needs to expand and grow to a point where China and the US reckon with India as more than a “swing nation” in the contested Indo-Pacific. Then, India has to infuse new vigour in its ties with Iran, regain its relevance in strife-torn West Asia and revive its once-vibrant friendship with Russia.
The list can go on. These are but some of the challenges a new government would have to grapple with soon after taking office. Hence, the parties cannot begin mulling over issues after the elections. The time to brainstorm towards a clear-cut policy is now — while drafting their manifestos.
The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi