Some caveats are necessary before pronouncing on the UPA government’s foreign policy, especially the apparent mishandling of relations with Sri Lanka and the case of the Italian marines, as well as the setback in the Maldives. First, no country can have a foreign policy that is seen as being without fault by the public. This is particularly true of democracies where all kinds of opinions get expressed, political partisanship is normal as Opposition parties will always find some reason to contest government decisions, and the civil society has its own views on how policies should be framed on humanitarian and peacebuilding issues in particular.
Second, even countries more powerful than India, better governed, with wider internal debates and inputs from specialists, with greater sense of purpose and more aggressive in safeguarding national interest appear to make serious foreign policy mistakes or manifestly fail to achieve their objectives.
Third, it should not be assumed that big countries can have their way with small countries. The international system presents an obstacle as principles of sovereignty are involved and the reaction of competing powerful countries, in the region or outside, have to be factored into decision-making, especially if the smaller countries have a sensitive geopolitical location.
A further point needs to be made specifically with regard to India. Our foreign policy problems are numerous and complex. Pakistan has been a perennial problem ever since we became independent, confronting us with military challenges, religious extremism and terrorism. Our other neighbours, barring Bhutan, have played external powers against us as a balancing factor. China and Pakistan have boosted the capacity and the confidence of our neighbours to oppose us, and, until the major improvement of our relations with the US, the American card has come in handy too. It is not absent even today in the triangular India-US-Pakistan diplomatic equation, with the situation in Afghanistan adding to its complexity.
The issues relating to the presence and treatment of Indian ethnic groups in neighbouring countries makes the management of relations with the latter more difficult. These issues spill over into domestic politics and cannot be treated solely as a foreign policy agenda. Our response to Islamic terrorism from Pakistan, which is essentially a foreign policy challenge, gets embroiled with the secular-communal debate in India as well as electoral considerations because a robust physical and legal response to local linkages of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is seen as targeting our own Muslim population unfairly.
With all these caveats, our handling of the Sri Lanka issue at the recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at Geneva deserves to be seen as a particularly low point in our diplomacy. Sri Lanka has not been an easy partner to deal with; its discriminatory policies towards the Tamil population have been the source of tensions with India for long. If Sri Lanka had been wiser, it would have avoided creating a festering domestic ethnic situation that objectively impinged on India and was bound to provoke Indian interference and be a source of mistrust between the two countries. Sri Lanka has not, as a result, been sufficiently cognisant of our security concerns. It has exploited its geopolitical position and our adversarial relationship with China and Pakistan to carve out space for itself to frustrate us in many ways. It has played its cards ably by also cooperating with us in some areas and giving us enough stakes to blunt our responses to its provocations.
Sri Lanka’s failure to resolve ethnic issues after crushing the LTTE, the lack of progress on reconciliation and accountability issues, the reneging on implementing the 13th Amendment, the agitation of the issue of human rights violations of the civilian Tamil population in the final stages of military operations against the LTTE by the Sri Lankan diaspora, amplified by reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, all led to the stigmatisation of Sri Lanka on human rights issues in a US-sponsored resolution at the UNHRC last year. India departed from its principled position not to back country-specific resolutions at Geneva by voting in favour of the resolution after working to dilute those parts of it that were too intrusive and disrespectful of Sri Lankan sovereignty.