None of these theories are accurate, because none capture what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to do. The changes being contemplated are part of an ongoing effort to restore the Centre’s capacity for strategic decision-making in the face of changes that have taken place in the working of Indian democracy. Most of these stem from the demise of single-party rule at the Centre and its more-or-less irreversible replacement with multi-party coalition rule.
The first casualty of this change has been the principle of collective responsibility in the Cabinet. A second, less noticed — because it was never actually invoked — is the PM’s power to discipline his party and consolidate his majority by threatening to dissolve the legislature and seek a fresh mandate. Since these are the two main pillars of the Westminster-style democracy that India adopted, with the advent of multi-party rule Indian democracy has entered untrodden ground. The loosening of the Centre’s control over policy has been further exacerbated by an unchecked proliferation of ministries and departments within it. The two developments have combined to create a multiplicity of centres of power in the executive, with less and less co-ordination of their functions.
This is the dual reality that confronted Manmohan Singh when he came to power in 2004. His solution to the problem was to appoint special envoys that have the status and personal authority to cross ministerial lines and report their conclusions directly to him. Over the last more than five years, this structure has begun to acquire some of the features of the non-elected cabinet of an American Presidency. Within it, the NSA is the first among equals.
Narayanan was shifted because he had widened his area of responsibility to the point where mistakes were being made and policymaking had ground to a halt; not for want of power, but for want of attention. Narayanan played an important role in pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal and re-orienting Indian policy towards the US. This is a contribution for which the nation will always be grateful to him. But the past five years have seen a loss of direction in dealing with the threats to India’s security that have arisen within its neighbourhood.
Today, India is a nation besieged. In Afghanistan, after US President Barack Obama’s announcement of a July 2011 starting date for an American pullout, the Taliban are scenting victory. In Pakistan, the prospect of being left to face the combined forces of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban on its own, and the surge in the cohorts of the Al Qaeda–linked tanzeems that will follow the US departure, have sowed something bordering panic in its army and civil society. This has already hardened Pakistan’s resistance towards American exhortations to attack the powerful Haqqani faction of the Taliban in North Waziristan. But what is far more disturbing is a possibility that is once again being discussed in some Pakistani circles: buying peace with the jihadis by diverting them to Kashmir.
Kashmir is ready to receive them because it, too, has been a victim of neglect. Prime Minister Singh did not follow up the failure of the back channel peace process with then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in 2007 with an attempt to take it forward with the Kashmiri separatists alone. The Kashmiris felt abandoned. As a result, the series of blunders that followed Delhi’s maladroit handling of the Amarnath land controversy and Jammu’s economic blockade of the valley in 2008 became the launchpad of a new — but this time, nonviolent — struggle for Azadi. The crackdown upon it in August 2008, engineered personally by Narayanan, has turned the fidayeen into heroes once more.
HOWEVER, THE political vacuum created in Nepal last May after the resignation of Nepal’s then Prime Minister, Prachanda, poses an even greater long-term threat than Kashmir or a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. Once more, India is at least partly responsible through its abrupt and shortsighted changes of policy. Realising, in 2005, that the Maoist threat could not be crushed, only tamed, it worked for four years to bring the movement into the mainstream of Nepali politics. Its efforts culminated in the forced abdication of King Gyanendra and a comprehensive peace agreement between all political parties.
Under Narayanan, mistakes were being made. Policymaking had ground to a halt for want of attention
But in the last eight months, the same Indian government has abruptly reversed its policy and turned a blind eye to the open defiance of the Nepali government by the manifestly monarchist commander-in-chief of the Nepali army. A renewal of the civil war in Nepal is now more than just a possibility. When it breaks out, the Nepali Maoists’ remaining inhibitions about helping the Maoists in central India fight Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s ‘Greyhounds’, ‘Cobras’ and ‘Jaguars’ will disappear. India’s soft underbelly will then be wide open.
Inaction, born of a lack of attention and foresight, could also cost India the goodwill of the Awami League government in Bangladesh. In the past two years, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has gone many leagues to meet the long-standing complaints that India had against its eastern neighbour. In less than two years, with a courage that finds no precedent in Indo-Bangladesh relations, her government has served notice on the ULFA that they will no longer be tolerated in Bangladesh, has handed over their leaders to India, has indicted no fewer than 10 top army and intelligence officers for smuggling arms to ULFA, and has expressed her willingness to allow trade and transit through Bangladesh for goods destined for India’s northeast. She has done all this in the full knowledge that unless India reciprocates wholeheartedly on issues of urgent concern to Bangladesh, such as the sharing of the waters of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra and wider access to Indian markets for Bangladeshi products to redress the huge imbalance in trade between the two countries, she will lay herself wide open to the charge of betraying her nation’s interests. But the five agreements signed during her visit did not contain a word on either. Instead, three of them — on mutual legal assistance on criminal matters, the transfer of sentenced persons and combating international terrorism, organised crime and illicit drug trafficking — addressed concerns that are almost exclusively Indian.
The political vacuum in Nepal poses a greater long-term threat than Kashmir or a Taliban victory
Manmohan Singh did not choose Menon because he is an outstanding diplomat but because he is the only person who has worked closely with the PM (and whom he can spare) who shares his strategic vision. When he was still India’s high commissioner in Islamabad, Menon was of the view that India and Pakistan had to work together to fight the Taliban threat. At that time, the Pakistanis heard him out politely but did not respond. Today, the shoe is on the other foot: On December 4, 2009, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said in London that Pakistan could not fight the Taliban alone and needed India’s cooperation.
Menon is also one of a few Indian policymakers who regards India’s relations with its neighbours as less a threat and more an opportunity. In a speech he gave shortly after becoming foreign secretary, he said India must stop thinking of what its neighbours could do for it and start thinking what it could do for them. I will be surprised indeed if this is not what Manmohan Singh will want him to do.