The Prime Minister alone cannot be blamed for the lacklustre national press conference he held on Monday. True, he did not articulate an overarching vision for his government, nor for the country, for what is being touted as our decade of opportunity. The media in equal measure failed to extract that vision from him. It got distracted in trivial issues like his retirement or relations with Sonia, things on which you are unlikely to get an honest answer through the medium of a press conference anyway, especially from a person who is notoriously reticent.
By its very nature, the media has a short take on events and developments. Even so, in a national press conference, perhaps the third held by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, their viewers and readers deserved better. They needed to be informed about the government’s longer-term perspective on relations with China, the energy crisis, how the Right to Education or Food Security Bill would work, what would happen if the monsoon failed the second time around and so on.
You would really have to wrack your mind to recall whether or not the word “China” was even uttered in the Prime Minister’s 75 minute press conference on Monday, or for that matter, “Nepal” or “Bangladesh.” Considering that foreign policy is a major thrust area for the Prime Minister, their absence was as puzzling as the decision to ignore the large foreign press corps which was present at the press conference.
The reason why it is so important to articulate a vision of the coming decade is because objective circumstances are shaping it to be one major window of opportunity for India. It’s not just about the demographic dividend or India’s high rate of economic growth. That remains a given. It is about what is happening in the rest of the world. Despite their enormous strengths, both the US and Europe are undergoing a transition. Russia remains moribund. It is here that the opportunity presents itself to India to move up a notch or two in the world order, not as a grant or boon from some superpower, but by the hard work of its people and the skill of its leaders. But the government is mired in internal incoherence where there seems to be a lack of consensus on everything.
Sadly, barring the Indian business elite, no one is looking at the opportunities that are presenting themselves before the country. This is manifest from the interest that is being shown by Indian IT majors like Infosys and Wipro in making European acquisitions. Europe is certainly a new area of opportunity. The economic crisis has only hit home now to the core states of Germany and France after the Greek fiasco. European states are reeling with the prospect of massive budget cuts, Germany has already led the way and France is contemplating raising its hallowed retirement age as part of the austerity programme and is getting set to also reform its pension schemes, considered the most generous in Europe. These developments provide opportunities for India to take strategic steps that will help deepen our ties with emerging Europe, not individual countries like France and Germany.
The political integration of Europe had been proceeding apace and meandering between various referenda. But the current crisis has concentrated minds like never before. Europe now confronts its existential moment. It either goes forward faster, or it comes apart. Just as India was created out of the 560 princely states and the provinces of British India because of the crisis of Partition and the precipitate departure of UK, the new Europe is likely to emerge from the somewhat belated decision of Germany and France to accept that either they hang together or they hang separately.
The challenge is not just with regard to Europe, but the opportunity that this crisis presents to push institutional changes in world bodies, be they the United Nations, or the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. Arvind Subramanian has, for example, argued that a strong and solvent Asia must force a weakened Europe to agree to reforming the IMF which has been dominated by the Europeans till now.
Beyond Europe, there is need to re-examine approaches to the United States and China. In India, at least, the US does get the attention it deserves. Indeed, at the press conference, the Prime Minister had to go on the backfoot to explain that he was not serving the American agenda, but that of this nation. That China was the actual absence in the press conference was a surprise because of all the external affairs challenges that India confronts, China is the most dynamic. This is not necessarily so in a negative sense, but to enable the Sino-Indian interaction to be positive and mutually beneficial requires some hard thinking and hard work on the part of the government.
Watch the emerging Sino-US relationship. The two countries are witnessing a reconciliation in their political and economic relationship. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have been in China this week to participate in the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue and as a Wall Street Journal report noted, “The most wide-ranging dialogue in the history of modern U.S.-China relations ended with some accord on contentious issues of currency and trade, but underlined a fundamental shift in the relationship between Washington and a newly assertive Beijing.”
Though analysts discount the notion of the rise of a new global order of the Group of Two (G-2) — the US and China—the texture of the Sino-US interaction suggests that this is indeed the direction in which the global balance is moving. It remains to be seen what the strategic dialogue that India will have with the US early next month will yield.
And finally, of course, our most important relationship—Pakistan. The Prime Minister was, if anything, circumspect. He is right in noting India’s “obligation” to have good relations with our neighbours and that we cannot reach out full potential as a nation unless we resolve our differences with our neighbours. Rising India may have a Pakistan problem, but it cannot be resolved by obfuscating its causes. The PM believes that some “trust deficit” is the reason why we are finding it difficult to improve ties with Islamabad. There are some issues where obfuscation is not a good idea. Terrorism is one of them and putting it under the rubric of “trust deficit” serves both India and Pakistan ill. India needs to be far more blunt with Islamabad on this issue. The government, too, must ponder on what the consequences (very real) would be of another major terrorist strike whose foot-prints lead back to Pakistan.
Surely the problems between India and Pakistan are more complex, and, alarmingly, less amenable to resolution than Manmohan Singh believes. It is not just a matter of Kashmir, or that India is interfering in Balochistan, or even that it was historically responsible for the loss of Pakistan’s eastern wing.
The first year of a new government is usually a “honeymoon” period. In the case of UPA-II this was aided by the fact that after the Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Arunachal assembly polls in November-December 2009, the Congress-led government had a clear window till the Bihar polls later this year to act on a pressing agenda of restructuring and reforming the government and its policies. This opportunity has been lost. Will this negative achievement set the tone for the rest of the decade as well? If so, you can say goodbye to India’s decade of opportunity.
This piece appeared in Mail Today May 27, 2010