As UPA 2 enters the last full year of its tenure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to devote substantive energies to advance India’s three most important bilateral relationships — with Pakistan, China and America. He must overcome the current political conservatism on foreign policy in the government, and make some big moves towards Islamabad, Beijing and Washington in 2013. Failure to act boldly, however, could see major setbacks on all three fronts.
Eight and a half years ago, the UPA government inherited an ambitious foreign policy agenda from the BJP-led NDA regime. Breaking the defensive tradition of Indian diplomacy, Atal Bihari Vajpayee set out to transform Delhi’s ties with America, China, and Pakistan.
If Vajpayee’s decision to conduct the nuclear tests in May 1998 put India in crisis mode with the three countries, his post-Pokhran diplomacy attempted to restructure relations with all of them. Vajpayee sought to end India’s prolonged international nuclear isolation in collaboration with the US and find a way to address India’s long-standing territorial disputes with Pakistan and China.
Unlike the Congress leadership, Vajpayee had no baggage to carry from the past and was unconstrained by the conventional wisdom on foreign policy. Although he could not bring any of his initiatives to fruition, he successfully altered the political framework for engaging America, China and Pakistan.
In the first term of the UPA government, Manmohan Singh ran with the baton. He invested much of his political capital to negotiate and implement the historic civil nuclear initiative and deepen the partnership with the US. Vajpayee’s search for an early boundary settlement with China saw the first substantive results under Singh when Delhi and Beijing signed an agreement in 2005 defining the political parameters and guiding principles for the resolution of the dispute.
With Pakistan, Vajpayee’s exploration on Kashmir became a full-fledged negotiation under UPA 1. It is now well-known that the back channel between Singh and General Pervez Musharraf made much progress in the only serious talks on Kashmir since 1962-63. During UPA 1, Delhi and Rawalpindi also came close to finding mutually acceptable solutions to the disputes on Siachen and Sir Creek.