December 14, 2019
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Krishnavatar

In a role he's new to, he'll have to stand up to the PMO babus

Krishnavatar
Krishnavatar
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Why Him

  • Manmohan wanted him for finance. Since Pranab opted for that, Krishna got the MEA.
  • Urbane, suave, western educated: just the man to head the MEA
  • Appointment may help Congress revive in Karnataka and create space for young leaders

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Challenges
  • Thwarting PMO bureaucrats' attempts to run foreign policy
  • Giving an economic thrust to diplomacy
  • Mending relations with the neighbours, particularly Pakistan
  • Keeping the momentum in Indo-US relations going

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Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna's passion for tennis runs so deep that he nearly missed a break budding politicians anxiously chew their nails for. In the early 1980s, when Indira Gandhi wanted to induct him as a junior minister at the Centre, her aide couldn't track him down to convey the news—he was away in Hyderabad playing a tennis match. It took the prime minister's office considerable effort, in those pre-mobile days, to fly him down to Delhi for the swearing-in.

All of 77, and still passionate about his tennis, Krishna's return to Delhi this time was planned, informed as he was in advance about a berth in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's cabinet. What wasn't known was the portfolio he was to handle. Sources have it that Manmohan wanted Krishna to be finance minister, just as he had when P. Chidambaram was shifted to the home ministry after Shivraj Patil resigned in the wake of 26/11. But party chief Sonia Gandhi felt Pranab Mukherjee should handle both finance and external affairs in the months before the general election. Her wish prevailed.

In the summer of 2009, as the exercise of choosing the Union cabinet began, Sonia asked Pranab his preference. He opted for finance. Since Pranab is too senior to be denied a portfolio of his choice, Manmohan decided to put Krishna in another court—the ministry of external affairs (MEA)—one in which Krishna has no experience and for which Kamal Nath and Kapil Sibal were frontrunners. But the surprise appointment of Krishna to the post had many speculating whether it was a stratagem of the prime minister's office (PMO) to dominate foreign policy. After all, the speculation goes, can a 77-year-old, and one who's an outsider to boot, smother the PMO's volleys?

Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha says, "Every now and then, you see a tendency among PMO bureaucrats to bypass the foreign minister on key foreign policy issues. A lot, therefore, will depend on the understanding the foreign minister has with the PM." Indeed, the PMO tried to impose itself on the foreign ministry between 2006-2009, but Pranab, because of his stature and experience, was able to stave it off. Attempts to encroach on MEA turf were also escalated in the weeks following 26/11. Chidambaram, just then made the home minister, met the Pakistani high commissioner without the knowledge of the foreign ministry, and National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan gratuitously aired his views on Pakistan and the Barack Obama administration. Finally, on Sonia's intervention, Pranab was given exclusive authority to comment on sensitive foreign policy issues.

Former diplomat Naresh Chandra says, "There are a number of occasions, especially with regard to key foreign policy issues, when the prime minister or his office will intervene. Much depends on the individual occupying the important post." Chandra says that when P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister, his office dominated foreign policy because the MEA was then headed by a weak Madhavsinh Solanki. "Though inputs are required from a number of ministries like finance, commerce, interior and water resources while dealing with other countries, it's the foreign minister who, working in cooperation with the prime minister and his close aides, should be given the responsibility of articulating the foreign policy. "

Others argue against pre-judging Krishna. Even though this is his first stint in the Union cabinet, he has been in public life for over four decades and was chief minister of Karnataka from 1999 to 2004, the period when Bangalore emerged as the country's information technology hub. As governor of Maharashtra, he was applauded by the party high command, so his induction could be regarded as a reward for his loyalty to both Sonia and Manmohan.

Krishna also seems to be part of the Congress plan to endear itself to the people of Karnataka, who voted for the bjp in the last election. With three leaders from Karnataka—Krishna, Veerappa Moily and Mallikarjun Kharge—in the cabinet, the caste groups to which they belong—Vokkaliga, OBC and Dalit respectively—could help the party rework equations in Karnataka. Political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan, however, sees it differently, "It's a difficult balancing act for the party to reach out to different sections in Karnataka. Perhaps a situation is being created for a new leadership of the Congress to emerge. Maybe the new leaders will be able to deal with the situation in the state more effectively than the older leaders."

Other factors must have also influenced Manmohan's choice of Krishna as foreign minister. He's urbane, articulate and extremely well-read. A Fulbright scholar, he studied at America's Southern Methodist University and George Washington University. This has prompted many to joke that his peers didn't like him because he was the only "full-bright" among all the "half-brights". Krishna's background and education should stand him in good stead in the international arena, where how you speak is often as important as what you say. Also, being trusted by both Sonia and Manmohan, Krishna could prove a dependable member of the core group of ministers that is often tasked with discussing key policies.

Krishna's grasp of economic matters will enable him to guide the MEA to lure foreign investors, both private as well as government, in these times of economic recession. Even as he provides economic thrust to foreign policy, he has to also devote himself to the more traditional aspect of MEA's functioning—mend relations with the countries in the neighbourhood. The new foreign minister has already indicated that his first trip abroad will be to a neighbouring country. Though he's unlikely to go first to Pakistan, there are speculations on how the UPA plans to deal with Islamabad. Krishna has said India wants to have good relations with Pakistan, but there's little chance of the stalled dialogue between the two sides restarting unless Islamabad takes concrete action against the perpetrators of 26/11. Neighbourhood apart, his other priority would be maintain the momentum in India's relations with the United States. His education in America could help strike a rapport with key players in the Obama administration.

He can overcome his inexperience in foreign policy through a definition of the role he wants to play and the initiative he takes. "A space has been created now; it is for him to fill it up," Naresh Chandra says. "If he does not, then the prime minister and the bureaucrats in his office will make sure that they fill up the empty space." At 77, Krishna could still deliver a diplomatic ace.

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