Debating India


Team Manmohan at work, at last

Monday 8 August 2005, by KHARE*Harish

For the first time, a new party-government synergy seems to be at work.

LAST THURSDAY, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh mounted in the Rajya Sabha a competent and coherent defence of the Indo-U.S. "agreement" he had signed during his recent Washington visit. Towards the end of his speech, he chose to acknowledge the role played by his officials and colleagues: External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh; India’s Ambassador in Washington Ronen Sen; National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan; Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran; and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar. This public praise for his team could be yet another act of courtesy by a man known for his courtesies. But interviews with senior officials (who participated in the Washington negotiations) indicate a new working style. For the first time since the Manmohan Singh Government came to power in May 2004, the Prime Minister seems to have in place a joyfully harmonious foreign policy team.

There is no secret that for the first six-odd months the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister’s Office often did not see eye to eye. Dr. Manmohan Singh’s first National Security Adviser J.N. Dixit and his External Affairs Minister simply did not hit it off; the two differed on policy, strategy, tactics, and nuances. Stories of Natwar-Dixit differences were the staple diet of many diplomatic despatches back home. After Dixit’s untimely demise, Mr. M.K. Narayanan - who till then was merely advising on matters of internal security - got the additional charge of "national security". Being a police officer, Mr. Narayanan does not find it at all problematic to defer to Mr. Natwar Singh’s years of experience in global diplomacy.

It took a while for new equations to find a level. The Washington visit saw perfect teamwork. The PMO officials are, for example, effusive in praising the External Affairs Minister for being totally on board. These officials noted with satisfaction that whereas Jaswant Singh was happy to negotiate with No. 2 man in the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice showed the extraordinary courtesy of calling on Mr. Natwar Singh at his hotel.

It was Mr. Natwar Singh who told Ms. Rice that the Bush administration should keep in mind that the Prime Minister headed a coalition government and the Indian government could not be seen as making unequal concessions. Back home, Mr. Singh is reported to have told party colleagues that it was the Prime Minister’s sincerity that made the difference in making President Bush see the Indian view. The Indian side also made it clear that New Delhi was unable to comprehend the American stance on three counts: Iraq, Iran, and the United Nations.

Again, it was Mr. Natwar Singh who is believed to have brought Dr. Kakodkar around, even though the Prime Minister had assured the scientist that he had the final "veto." The scientist was asked, it is learnt, to put down his formulation on nuclear energy, and the Kakodkar formulation that became the basis of the final agreement. More importantly, the Prime Minister and advisers recognised the need to sell the Washington deal back home. As soon as he came back, the Prime Minister hosted a dinner for the senior nuclear scientists and got most of them to accept that it was the best deal India could have got. A key constituency has been reasonably persuaded of the merits of the Washington deal.

The new team spirit also helped in selling the agreement to the Congress. Even before the Prime Minister had landed back, there were murmurs in the party. A senior Congress Minister is believed to have expressed serious reservations to party president Sonia Gandhi about the Washington agreement. The External Affairs Minister, on his return, was asked to see the senior Minister. Mr. Natwar Singh told the doubting Minister: "If I had one per cent doubt about Manmohan Singh’s agreement, I would have resigned." A few days later the same Minister was professing to be "100 per cent" behind the Prime Minister.

Again, when the Prime Minister briefed the Congress Working Committee on July 29, he faced unfriendly questions from senior members such as M.L. Fotedar and Ambika Soni. A few days later, it was the same Ms. Soni who led the Congress benches in defence of the Washington deal. The Congress would not let the BJP get away with the charge of compromising Indian autonomy. It was evident that the Congress parliamentarians were well-briefed; all of them were armed with a copy of Strobe Talbott’s book, Engaging India, with damning passages flagged down by some helpful official, as to how Mr. Jaswant Singh had almost sold the store away. For the first time, a new party-government synergy was at work.

See online : The Hindu

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