Manmohan Singh’s foreign travel

The Indian prime minister is going to places he shouldn’t. And not going to places he should.

It’s becoming a pattern. First, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attends a summit of an international grouping that has little relevance to India’s foreign policy priorities. Then, at the “sidelines”, he meets the Pakistani leader who happens to be there too, and then surprises everyone with the outcome. His imprudently went to the SCO meeting at Yekateriburg, met a usually conciliatory Asif Ali Zardari, and appeared to blow hot. He unnecessarily went to a NAM meeting at Sharm-el-Sheikh, met a usually belligerent Yousuf Raza Gilani and handed him a lollipop. He now plans to go to Trinidad to attend a meeting of an irrelevant international organization—the Commonwealth—and intends to meet the Pakistani leader at the sidelines.

Now, if Dr Singh believes that he has to attend meetings of outfits that are peripheral to India’s interests, then he has gotten his priorities very wrong. Since he became prime minister in May 2004, he is yet to visit capitals of countries that are of direct relevance to India. The absence of top-level stewardship has meant that relations with Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Canberra, Seoul and Tokyo—some of India’s most important geopolitical partners—have been at drift. Other than through SAARC, another non-performing outfit, he has not visited even neighboring capitals. Yet he finds the time for not one, but three multilateral summits in the first four months of his second-term. At a time when China is rapidly developing its influence in East Asia and the subcontinent, the UPA government’s failure—and Dr Singh’s personal absence—in Asia has damaged India’s interests in the region.

On the other hand, Dr Singh might merely be using these faraway places as an excuse to meet a Pakistani leader at a neutral venue. If so, then he is not only running an important part of India’s foreign policy by subterfuge, but also, running the risk of damaging outcomes like that at Sharm-el-Sheikh. As K P Nayar wrote in the Calcutta Telegraph, the key official in the foreign ministry handling Pakistan affairs was not even in the delegation that went to Egypt. Without criticising the prime minister’s authority to use his own judgement on key foreign policy decisions, it borders on the irresponsible not to pay attention to composing the negotiating team properly.

The Prime Minister’s Office must state clearly what exactly Dr Singh hopes to achieve at these trips. If the purpose is to attend diplomatic Club-Meds, then he is guilty of very misplaced priorities. If the purpose is to meet a Pakistani leader, then it must not be done by stealth. Dr Singh can invite his Pakistani counterpart, visit Islamabad or indeed, set-up a Reykjavik like summit in a third country.