A photograph, it is said, is more telling than a thousand words of succinct prose. Last Friday morning, the readers of many newspapers may have observed a very revealing photograph from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where Indian and Pakistani delegations, led by their respective Prime Ministers, met on the sidelines of the redundant Non-Aligned Movement Summit. The photograph showed Manmohan Singh, flanked by Yousuf Raza Gilani, greeting a woman member of the Pakistani delegation with what, presumably, is either an adaab or a feeble imitation of the signature Pervez Musharraf salute.
How the Prime Minister of India chooses to greet a foreigner is an individual decision. He may offer a limp handshake or even a firm one; he may copy Fidel Castro’s bear hug; he may, though this is extremely unlikely, greet the visitor with a peck on both cheeks; he may favour a deep Japanese-style bow; and alternatively he may offer the traditional Namaste. It is entirely a personal decision and one that need not be bound in protocol, as long as it is laced with courtesy.
Not even his worst enemies will accuse Manmohan of either rudeness or discourtesy. He would not have invited charges of either cultural insensitivity or inappropriate conduct had he chosen to greet the Pakistani lady with folded hands. Most foreigners, in fact, expect to be greeted with a Namaste by an Indian, especially when it is a formal occasion.
That Manmohan chose to greet the Pakistani officials with an adaab is revealing. It suggested a mindset centred on supplication which translated politically means a desperate desire to accommodate and please. Pursuing the line of least resistance has been the signature tune of the PM in his relationship with the owners of the Congress, his coalition partners and in his conduct of foreign policy. Some may see in this Manmohan’s grand vision of reconciliation: Breakfasting in Delhi and lunching in Lahore. But attributing profundity to inanity is a well-known Indian trait, except these days it passes off as media management.
The outrageous joint statement issued from Sharm el-Sheikh has been analysed threadbare by a country which wants to know whether the ‘tough on terrorism’ stand adopted by India after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai was meant for electoral consumption alone. Read with the apology the PM issued to President Asif Ali Zardari for miscuing his rehearsed lines at Yekaterinburg in Russia last month, the joint statement’s clear willingness to not let the trivial issue of terrorism mar the composite dialogue reveals the spinal condition of Indian diplomacy under Manmohan.
Manmohan’s inclination to appease the rogue state in Pakistan was first in evidence at the Havana summit of NAM two years ago when it was proclaimed that India and Pakistan were co-victims of terror. The groundwork for this shameful retreat from the Islamabad declaration of January 2004 had, in fact, been done at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Delhi immediately after the UPA Government assumed power in the summer of 2004 when it was stated that terrorism would not be allowed to derail the peace process.
However, what is intriguing about the latest reiteration of a decision to delink dialogue from acts of aggression is that it even caught the decision-making apparatus of the Government unawares. The overall consensus in the Ministry of External Affairs and the intelligence agencies was that it would be imprudent to resume formal dialogue with a duplicitous neighbour unless there was clear evidence that it was taking firm and effective steps to defang the terrorists operating from within its territory. It was felt that any engagement with Pakistan could well be conducted within the framework of discreet back channel diplomacy.
This was the gist of the briefing by the Foreign Secretary to the Indian media accompanying the Prime Minister to Egypt. At best, Manmohan was expected to show some recognition of the civilian Government’s difficulties in confronting a monster that had been nurtured by the Pakistan military establishment and the ISI. After all, Zardari had owned up to Pakistan’s role in sustaining fanatical jihadis. Not even the most clued-in expected Manmohan to walk the entire mile to placate Pakistan, going to the ridiculous extent of even tacitly conceding an Indian role in the disturbances in Baluchistan.
Conspiracy theories tend normally to be a little fanciful but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Manmohan’s actions may be guided by a nudge and a wink from the US. That Washington no longer has the stomach to continue the fight in Afghanistan is hardly the world’s best kept secret. But no disentanglement from Afghanistan is possible for the US unless it has some assurance that Pakistan is not going to fill the vacuum with a barbaric Taliban regime intent on wreaking havoc in the heartlands of Western ‘decadence’. Was India chipping in to raise Pakistan’s comfort level? Has India become a collaborator in the US’s AfPak policy?
At this juncture only questions can be raised. But there is merit in scrutinising a number of other steps taken by Manmohan to placate the US. First, there was the change of the Commerce Minister followed by clear indications that the ‘intransigence’ of Kamal Nath would be reviewed in future WTO negotiations. Second, in signing the G-8 declaration, Manmohan indicated a retreat from India’s existing policy on Climate Change. Finally, by adding his signature to the G-8 proclamation on non-proliferation, Manmohan may have taken the first covert step in accommodating the Obama Administration’s determination to rollback India’s gains from the agreements with the IAEA and NSG.
These are early days yet but Manmohan’s adaab suggests that accommodation of others rather than enlightened self-interest may become the new principle of Indian foreign policy. Maybe the time is fast approaching when India should prepare to do its Namaste to him, before he travels down the IK Gujral route.