Decoding Manmohan Singh’s red lines

Manmohan Singh meeting soldiers on National Army Day, 15 January. Photo: Office of the India Prime Minister

Manmohan Singh meeting soldiers on National Army Day, 15 January.

By Dr Sanjaya Baru, Director for Geo-economics and Strategy

Many eyebrows were raised in Delhi and around the world when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asserted that ‘it cannot be business as usual’ with Pakistan after the recent incident on the Line of Control (LoC). Because these remarks came after the National Security Adviser briefed opposition leaders about the government’s approach to the issue, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha took credit for the prime minister’s tough stance, while welcoming it. However, it has since become clear that Singh was adopting a more nuanced approach, not the sledgehammer response that the Bharatiya Janata Party and hotheads in the media were seeking.

The many expressions of surprise, accompanied by gratuitous remarks about Singh’s ‘uncharacteristic’ toughness, ignore the fact that on vital national-security and foreign-policy issues, the prime minister has always drawn red lines and stuck to them. These red lines have been drawn both with respect to political parties and ministerial colleagues at home and foreign governments. When it comes to foreign policy, Singh has jealously guarded prime ministerial turf and defended the national interest.

In India’s federal, parliamentary government system, foreign policy has always been the sole prerogative of the prime minister. Fully appreciative of the limits within which a prime minister could function in the kind of set-up that he had inherited, Singh was quick to draw red lines at home, as his first foreign minister, Natwar Singh, discovered early on.

The most dramatic event occurred when the Left Front state government of West Bengal informed the federal government in 2005 that it would not be able to ensure law and order at the Kalaikunda air-force base where a group of communist, CPI (M) protesters had planned to gather to disrupt joint air exercises between the Indian Air Force and the United States Air Force. Reminding Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya that no state government can prevent the central government from conducting defence and foreign policy, Singh threatened to impose ‘president’s rule’ in West Bengal if the state government failed to discharge its constitutional responsibility of maintaining law and order, especially near a defence installation. Not only did Bhattacharya fall in line, the CPI (M) general-secretary Prakash Karat called on Singh and gave his personal assurance that there would be no disruption of the exercises.

More recently, there was a comment that Singh failed to impose similar discipline on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee when she blocked a bilateral agreement between India and Bangladesh on Teesta River water-sharing. Here, too, the fact remains that eventually the government of India was able to implement a large part of the understanding with Bangladesh. Singh also ensured, over time, that Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress had to pay a price, and was ejected from India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government (as the Left Front also earlier was). In both cases, the message was that state governments cannot cross certain red lines on matters of national security and foreign policy.

One can give several other examples where Singh may have initially stepped back in the face of opposition at home but eventually walked the talk. Faced with criticism at home, even from within his own party, for the famous India–Pakistan joint statement at Sharm-el-Sheikh, in July 2009, Singh not only defended his initiative twice in a month in parliament but also continued his dialogue with his Pakistani counterpart.

The last word
Indeed, even when UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi wrote a letter to Singh expressing concern about the India–ASEAN free trade agreement, Singh chose to stand his ground. When her letter was leaked to the media by a party functionary, Singh did not mind his reply being released to the media. The message once again was that on matters of national security and foreign policy, the prime minister would have the last word.

Externally also, Singh has not shied away from drawing red lines. When President Barack Obama sought to send Richard Holbrooke to India as a special envoy to discuss Kashmir, the US was told in no uncertain terms that Holbrooke would not be welcome.

On another occasion, when the Chinese government publicly warned India against permitting the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, Singh let China know that it could not dictate which parts of India the Dalai Lama could or could not travel to. A similar red line was drawn on the issue of the attendance of the Indian ambassador at the ceremony where a Chinese dissident was to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize, and on China stamping its version of India’s map on Indian passports.

The toughness that Singh has demonstrated in the conduct of foreign and defence policy is not always evident in the handling of domestic political issues. But then, over the past two decades, successive Indian prime ministers, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have discovered the limits to their political power at home given the nature of coalition politics.

While many of Singh’s critics imagine that he pursued the civil-nuclear-energy agreement with the US in the face of Left Front opposition because he was being adamant, or ‘soft’ on the US and so on, an important reason, apart from his conviction about the merits of the agreement itself, was his resolve not to allow domestic politics to limit prime ministerial prerogative in foreign policy and national security.

As he then famously asked his own party’s leaders which head of government would take the Indian prime minister’s word seriously in any international negotiation if he cannot stick to that word?

With Pakistan, Singh has adequately demonstrated his ability to overcome domestic opposition to his peace initiatives. If his dialogue with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf reached a dead end, it was not for want of resolve on Singh’s part. Rather, it was because of the turn of events inside Pakistan in 2007 [with Musharraf stepping down as army chief in November to become a civilian president]. Despite the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, Singh has shown consistency and determination in taking the dialogue process forward.

So, even Pakistan has to respect Singh’s red lines, just as President Obama and President Hu Jintao were required to. Singh’s firmness on foreign policy and national security appears to have triggered the ‘no business as usual’ remark. And it has had the intended impact.

A version of this article first appeared in the Hindu


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 230 other followers