May 25, 2020
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For A Policy Umbrella

Since India can't be rid of party politics, it needs to evolve a new consensus around vital policy areas.

For A Policy Umbrella
SO we have seen the fourth government ousted from power in a three-year span. There were two general elections during this period, but the Indian voter did not elect parliaments that could underpin stable governments. All the arguments that coalition governments are good for the country and the logical choice for a federal polity have been proved wrong. Instead, we face the spectre of governmental instability, attended by fragmented national politics and frequently interrupted policies on vital issues.

A number of Delhi-based foreign correspondents and TV representatives abroad approached me after the BJP government's fall on Saturday, April 17. Almost all had the same questions: Will there be a change in India's foreign and defence policies? What will be the orientation of India's economic and investment policies?

As far as India's foreign and defence policies go, three categories of speculative assessment are relevant at this critical juncture. First, what does Indian public opinion want from the next government in terms of foreign, defence and economic policies? Second, how will the international community react to the instability in Indian politics, especially in the areas of foreign relations, defence and economic cooperation? Third, what are the challenges that India faces in these vital spheres of national concern and how should our new government react?

Most Indians have a sense of ennui and despair about the revolving-door syndrome that afflicts their governments. There is a desire for stability, and the wish that instead of about-turns and contradictions, India's foreign, defence and economic policies should be characterised by continuity and sufficient flexibility. Continuity is necessary to sustain our credibility in the international community.

Flexibility is necessary to be responsive to internal requirements concerning foreign relations, defence and development in these changing times. The national consensus that backed Indian policies roughly till the middle of 1996 needs to be restored. A new consensus must be built up for India's nuclear weaponisation and missile development policies, about how we should structure relations with important countries like the US, China and Pakistan, and about our economic reforms and modernisation programmes. We should stop acting Trishanku's part in our economic policies. Partisan politics should not affect the new defence and technological capacities that India has acquired and proved to the international community.

As far as external reactions go, India's stability will be seen as doubtful. There will be concerns about cohesion, continuity and efficient implementation of the policies regardless of which government assumes power. External inputs into our economies are likely to diminish in the short-term. Another critical factor is the impression that India is vulnerable. The pressure on us to pull back from our nuclear weapons and missile programmes and to subject our sophisticated technological capacities to restrictions and monitoring would increase.

To come to the challenges that the new government will face in the sphere of foreign relations, defence and economic policies, an issue-specific analysis will be relevant. There has to be a continuity in our nuclear weaponisation and missile programmes, and the incoming government should create the necessary national consensus. The discussions that the Vajpayee government initiated with important powers on issues related to India's new capacities should be continued seamlessly with necessary adjustments—more important, with clarity and the determination to resist short-term pressures. The approach should be one of measured engagement rather than impulsive or xenophobic confrontation. The new government will have negotiating space to examine the more substantive implications of the CTBT before making any commitments, especially since the three major nuclear weapon powers—the US, Russia and China—have not been categorical about ratifying it.

The unnecessary aberrations that affected our relations with China need to be rectified. Liberated from the burden of the previous government's policy statements, the new government could bring Sino-Indian relations back on track. A start was made by the Vajpayee government during its last week in office. One hopes the scheduled discussions between foreign secretary K. Raghunath and his Chinese counterpart in the Joint Working Group will be successful. Reports said that foreign minister Jaswant Singh was likely to visit China in May—one hopes that the new foreign minister will keep this appointment.

THOUGH Vajpayee's Lahore visit in February may have had limited results, the dialogue which he revived in the context of nuclear and missile capabilities of India and Pakistan should be continued. While one does not expect any breakthrough on Kashmir, the provisions of the Lahore Memorandum relating to strategic restraint and related CBMs should be seriously discussed. Discussions with the US must be continued, and no partisan considerations should be allowed to become a stumbling block in these ongoing negotiations. Parallel discussions on the same subjects with Russia and France should also continue.

The general orientation of Indian public opinion is more or less clear; all political parties are aware of these orientations. The pattern of external reactions can be anticipated by us on the basis of our experience in foreign relations over the last 50 years. The specific issues to which we have to respond can also be anticipated with a fair amount of precision. The over-arching approach that should govern our policies is to be clear that foreign relations, defence and development are issues that at the most fundamental level should transcend partisan politics, however endemic it may be to the processes of multi-party democracy.

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