When a government yields to every pressure group at home, its capacity to pursue national interests abroad inevitably erodes. The UPA government’s diplomacy in the final months of its decade-long tenure is a good example of the costs of violating this canon. The failure to clinch a commercial agreement on the purchase of two additional reactors from Russia for the Kudankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Moscow is not a reflection on India’s diplomatic skills.

C. Raja Mohan
A leading analyst of India’s foreign policy, Mohan is also an expert on South Asian security, great-power relations in Asia, and arms control.
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No amount of diplomatic genius can overcome bad policies at home. The plain fact is that the nuclear liability act passed by Parliament in 2010 is a serious problem for nuclear suppliers at home and abroad. No one will accept its undue burdens and participate in the expansion of India’s civil nuclear programme.

Hustled by an opportunistic BJP, an ideological Left and sundry anti-nuclear activists into passing a self-defeating legislation, the government has struggled to negotiate commercial nuclear agreements with its partners – including Russia, France and America. Instead of acknowledging that the legislation is a bad one, Delhi has postured that the law of the land must prevail. At the same time, it has tried some overly clever ways to circumvent it in practice. This has not worked, not until now at least.

At the heart of this awful outcome was the political leadership’s excessive deference to the department of atomic energy, which was given the lead in drafting the legislation. On top of it, there was no due diligence in New Delhi on the draft legislation that was not in conformity with current international norms. Making matters worse, the attempts at finessing the draft when it was being debated in Parliament backfired.

Wag the dog

The nuclear episode is a mere reflection of the “new departmentalism” under the UPA’s rule. Under the current dispensation, different government agencies are allowed to craft their own policies. The political leadership abandons any pretence of being in charge. If the DAE was allowed to dominate India’s nuclear diplomacy, something similar is happening on the Line of Control in Kashmir, where a decade-long ceasefire with Pakistan has begun to unravel. The defence minister, A.K. Antony, proudly proclaims he has given a free hand to the army in responding to the Pakistani provocations on the LoC.

Antony has perhaps not heard that war is too important to be left to the generals. Nor has he learnt anything from the Vajpayee government, which tightly controlled military policy. Use of force, including the terms of military engagement with an adversary, are political decisions. In a democracy, it is the civilian leadership that must make these decisions and take responsibility for the consequences. The UPA government is ready to do neither.

The government’s abdication is possibly driven by the Congress party’s fears of looking weak on Pakistan in the electoral season. The PM, who has devoted much energy towards changing the Pakistan relationship, now watches his investment go up in smoke.

Centre cannot hold

The administrative anarchy that has been let loose by the UPA has resulted in some big diplomatic setbacks. In its reluctance to upset West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is likely to be kingmaker in the next Parliament, the UPA is unwilling to press for the ratification of the historic land boundary agreement with Bangladesh.

More recently, Delhi decided to defer the visa liberalisation agreement with China that was to be signed during the PM’s visit to Beijing this week. News reports say the move was a response to China’s policy of issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh. As it postures before domestic audiences, the UPA government has made a habit of shooting itself in the foot. Holding back on visa liberalisation will not change Beijing’s territorial claims on Arunachal. There are other ways of putting pressure on Beijing on territorial issues. But Delhi has chosen to constrain India’s much-needed engagement with Chinese businessmen.

That the Congress party’s domestic political considerations have undermined India’s foreign policy has also been evident elsewhere. If the PM skips the Commonwealth summit in Colombo next month, he would only confirm that the UPA has outsourced the Lanka policy to Chennai. With apologies to Yeats, Delhi lacks conviction and every passionate intensity in the nation has acquired a veto over foreign policy.

This article was originally published in the Eurasia Review.