The worldview of the Indian National Congress appears to have changed. After working five months on its manifesto for the 2014 General Election, India's oldest political party has put together an interesting foreign policy menu. The Congress party, it would seem, has become wiser.
In 2009 the Congress was flush with goodwill for the Barack Obama-led administration. The party believed it had helped India take big global strides.
Its then manifesto said: “The foreign policy followed in the past five years has yielded handsome results: the foremost example is the agreements on civil nuclear cooperation signed with the USA, Russia, France and Kazakhstan.”
Three paragraphs later the Congress said: “India's relationships with countries like the USA, Russia, China and Japan and with countries of Europe have been transformed by sustained diplomatic efforts since 2004. These relationships will be further deepened.”
There is a difference in tone now. The 2014 manifesto makes no mention of the US unless we consider a reference to 'all major powers'. India and the US have been sniping at each other in the recent past after a dispute over the working conditions of a maid ripped apart the facade of bonhomie.
India has come across as too willing to accept a lower status as it seeks to please the US. This has upset many Indians. The Congress has shaped New Delhi’s foreign policy over the past decade and it is thus responsible for the loss of prestige.
The new Congress manifesto seems to acknowledge this although in a typically roundabout manner. The exclusion of the US is the most striking part of the Congress thoughts on foreign policy. But there are other signs of change too.
The 2014 manifesto makes no mention of Russia either. Says the Congress: “India has emerged as a critical bridge between the developed world and the developing world, along with Brazil, China and South Africa.” This is a reference to the BRICS grouping without Russia.
India has stayed off Russia’s moves in Ukraine and Crimea, neither supporting nor opposing what the Kremlin did. But the sense of unease in the Congress comes through in the exclusion of Russia from its foreign policy plans for the next five years.
This is probably the Congress way of expressing displeasure.
China is mentioned again with specific reference to border concerns between New Delhi and Beijing. “We expect to proceed with our mutual efforts with China to work through established instruments towards a resolution of differences of perception about the border and the Line of Actual Control (LAC), even as our economic cooperation and multilateral cooperation continue to grow.”
This is an acceptance that China has to be reconciled with. Beijing, therefore, looms in the Congress mind while Washington and Moscow have receded. SAARC makes a comeback of sorts as the Congress refers to the possibility that SAARC may have more relevance as an economic community rather than a political one.
Afghanistan is spoken of in clear terms. “For Afghanistan, we believe the real threat is not within but from terrorism from beyond its borders. If the peace process remains Afghan-owned and Afghan-driven, we will work to support it.” The context here is Pakistan whom the Congress clearly doesn’t trust enough.
Other shifts from 2009 to 2014 are interesting as well. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Africa are the only ones to figure in both manifestos. SAARC and Afghanistan come up in 2014; they were absent in 2009.
The US, Russia, the European Union, Japan, Bangladesh and Nepal are absent now; all of them were in the 2009 manifesto.
The message is that the Congress is preoccupied with Asia. It seems to sense trouble in the neighbourhood and wants to stave off possible disasters. This is an appropriate reflex although a trifle belated. It comes through clearly on Sri Lanka.
In 2009 the Congress said: “The long held policy of the Indian National Congress is that Sri Lanka should find an honourable solution to the strife in that country and ensure that all communities, especially the Tamil-speaking people, are guaranteed and enjoy equal rights within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.
“The Indian National Congress offers to help the parties reach an agreement as envisaged in the India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 which remains the only basis for a politically negotiated settlement.”
The shift in 2014 is loud. “On Sri Lanka, we will engage with that country to ensure that the Tamil-speaking people and other minorities have full equality and equal rights under the law.
We will continue to press Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment and create autonomous provinces, especially the provinces of the North and the East.
“We will continue to extend all possible humanitarian and development assistance to enable the Tamil-speaking people and other minorities to rebuild their lives in a dignified manner.
We will work with other countries to prevail upon Sri Lanka to ensure a credible, objective, time-bound inquiry into allegations of human rights violations and excesses committed by the Sri Lankan forces during the concluding phases of the operations against the LTTE.”
This is good enough for a separate story. But the bigger strand is the worry over China and the indifference to the US and Russia.
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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi.
Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.