November 12, 2013 6:05 am

Domestic politics weigh on Indian foreign policy

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid addresses media representatives after he arrived at Tribhuvan International airport in Kathmandu on July 9 2013©AFP

Even his three decades of experience in politics and the law have not been enough for Salman Khurshid, Indian foreign minister, to wrest control of the country’s foreign policy from what he sees as the baneful influence of domestic politics.

This week’s 11th-hour decision by Manmohan Singh, prime minister, to boycott the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka was dictated not by India’s considered strategy as a regional power in south Asia but by the demands of Tamil parties that may prove useful to the governing Congress party in the 2014 Indian general election, according to Mr Khurshid.

In an interview in New Delhi, Mr Khurshid acknowledged that India’s role was affected by domestic politics and by the need for embattled Congress leaders to stay home and manage the economy during the five state elections that will precede the national poll.

“There’s also a very strong and I think myopic position that the parties in Tamil Nadu have taken, and the position that they have taken is so strident that inevitably it impacts the assessments of our own people,” he said.

He was alluding to Indian Tamil anger over Sri Lankan government human rights abuses following Colombo’s victory over Tamil rebels in the civil war.

Stephen Harper, Canadian prime minister, is boycotting the summit, while David Cameron of the UK says he will call for an international investigation into the abuses if Sri Lanka does not carry out a robust one of its own.

The Indian government nevertheless wanted to send Mr Singh to Colombo to help repair New Delhi’s relationship with its southern neighbour, whose government has increasingly turned to distant China for economic and diplomatic support.

Asked whether this meant that India’s attempt to project itself as a major power was constrained, Mr Khurshid replied: “It does. The pressure on us now is much greater. Whatever we could have achieved in terms of foreign policy if this constraint was not there is much more difficult to achieve.”

Turning to China, India’s neighbour and regional rival, Mr Khurshid said that it would be silly to deny Beijing’s importance as a rising economic and strategic power, but it would be wrong for India to become “fixated” on Beijing, with which it has a long and disputed border in the Himalayas.

“We are a country that sent a Mars mission this week. We are not going to be pushed around psychologically by any other country. We engage with China as equal partners.”

Mr Khurshid noticed with satisfaction that in spite of recent incursions across the disputed frontier by Chinese forces – and unlike the situation between India and Pakistan – there had been no recent deaths in the confrontations.

“We have the comfort of knowing there has been no casualty over the past decade and a half,” he said. “We’ve learned to ringfence our differences.”

Although India can advertise itself on the global stage as the world’s largest democracy – in contrast to authoritarian China – Mr Khurshid said his own country needed political reform to modernise the economy, and he was critical of Indian politicians’ election rhetoric.

“We don’t run elections on the basis of reform. We run elections on the basis of ‘I give you something’,” he said. “We’ve stopped doing elections on ideas.”

Mr Khurshid attacked Narendra Modi – the charismatic prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata party – for merely attacking the government and failing to come up with specific programmes or plans for either domestic or foreign policy.

“All he says is ‘weak-kneed foreign policy’, but what the foreign policy should be he doesn’t say,” Mr Khurshid said. “He’s saying we should have a lot of industry in this country, but how?” He added: “This guy, he has no programme and he has no policy.”

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