Byline by M J Akbar: FM Music
FM must be music to Pranab Mukherjee’s ears. Defence is a curious ministry in Delhi, demanding responsibility without power. One former Prime Minister, whose experience taught him the value of subservience, and whose subservience taught him the value of revenge, used to dismiss defence as the toy ministry. The toy in question was the plane which is the minister’s personal privilege; the Prime Minister is the only other member of the Cabinet to get such high-flying transport. The sly joke was that you could keep a competitor for the top job at bay by gifting this toy to play with.
For a professional politician, the problem with defence is that it has no political constituency. Home is much in demand because it provides the greatest opportunity to influence events: Kargil was an honourable, defensive, limited engagement. The last defence minister who emerged with an enhanced reputation was Jagjivan Ram, who held the portfolio during the 1971 war. That was also the last real war which India fought and won. The best that an eminent politician like Sharad Pawar might say after a stint in the job is that he did not do any damage to himself. The defence minister’s principal job is to ensure that the capability of the armed forces is always a few regiments/missiles/planes greater than the enemy. He is therefore by far the biggest purchaser in the government.
The arms bazaar is arguably the world’s most corrupt legitimate business. Since security is such a holy cow, the arms dealer knows that he can get away with a pricing policy that would invite howls of derisive anger in any other deal. The efficacy of a product is no guarantee against corruption. If there is one gun that has proved its worth to Indian security then surely it is Bofors. The whiff of acrid fumes from that smoking gun still permeates through Indian politics. George Fernandes has discovered what can happen to a lifetime reputation for fiscal honesty. Accusations do not have to be proved to condemn a politician. Just making them is enough. There is simply too much sleaze, and very few strains of khadi are immune from dirt.
Pranab Mukherjee had reached that point in his tenure where mud had begun to leave a pattern upon his reputation. It was just the moment for a switch, for the next session of Parliament is likely to see a great deal of Scorpene mud flying across the hall. The switch is brilliant, because the new defence minister, A.K. Antony, is allegedly made of stainless steel. He will need all the stainless steel in his armour to deflect the mud. Dr Manmohan Singh has proved wiser than his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, who restored Fernandes when the latter, by any political yardstick, has passed his shelf-life in the ministry.
Is the foreign ministry lower in the pecking order of Delhi’s hierarchy? The question is odd, since the foreign minister not only has a crucial role to play in policymaking but also has a political job to do.
Pranab Mukherjee takes over at a moment when there is a serious job waiting to be done. Ever since Natwar Singh’s sudden departure, the foreign ministry has been an orphan. The Prime Minister’s efforts to play surrogate mother have merely exposed his inadequacies in a nuanced responsibility. Pranab Mukherjee is fortunate in his new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, an excellent career diplomat without either baggage or, worse, pretensions. Together they might, as a start, consider clearing up three confusions.
There has been a historic tendency in Delhi to confuse a Pakistan policy for a foreign policy. It is perfectly rational that Pakistan should be a primary concern, since war, in hot, cold and intermediate forms, has always been an undercurrent of the Indo-Pak relationship. But India has to rise above turning Pakistan into an obsession. India has more than one neighbour; India should have a larger vision of its place in the world, and indeed the world’s place in India. Worse, Pakistan policy in the last year or so can best be described as legwork. When Delhi is in a mood for goodwill, its knee begins to jerk. When terrorism inevitably comes back into focus, anger turns into a footlash. There is often the absurdity of the knee jerking towards goodwill while, simultaneously, the foot begins to kick. It is not, to say the least, the most elegant form of diplomatic ballet. Pakistan policy needs greater balance, more composure, less romanticism and sustained engagement.
The second confusion is a direct by-product of Dr Manmohan Singh’s almost personal drive to create a nuclear deal with the United States. I have said this before, and it bears repetition: there is nothing wrong with the idea barring those little intrusive and unacceptable conditionalities that could compromise India’s independent nuclear military capability. But the management of this policy is flawed by a fundamental misunderstanding of foreign policy. We have made a basic mistake in confusing George Bush with America. We have a Bush policy rather than an America policy. Obviously, an American President is the key to many doors in Washington, but a more careful and professional approach would have calibrated the outcome by measuring, coolly, how much political capital Bush had left after the Iraq quagmire, and how much of this capital he was ready to spend on selling a difficult deal on terms that would be acceptable to India. I imagine that a few people in Delhi at this moment are as anxious about the results of the Congressional elections in the first week of November as Bush is. If Bush is defeated, he will spend the next two lame-duck years trying to rescue his Republican Party from the consequences of a military and political debacle in Iraq. He has already begun to admit, albeit reluctantly, that he did not quite know what he was doing.
The third on my list is possibly more self-delusion than confusion. For some months now, this government has been signalling, privately, that all opposition to the US nuclear deal, or to Bush, is "communal." Such an assumption comes easily to a non-political mind. It was surely fuelled by the sight of a hundred thousand Muslims demonstrating against Bush’s visit to Delhi. When Bush uses terms like "Islamic fascism" and is responsible for countless innocent deaths, it is hardly unnatural for Muslims to feel that they have been made victims of a powerful individual’s megalomania. As citizens of a free country they have every right to express their views. If Dr Singh had not confused Bush with America, he would have seen a larger reality: that the majority of Americans are liberal and democratic, and they would be fooled for only some of the time.
One of the great failings of our present foreign policy is that we have withdrawn from our traditional areas of influence for fear of upsetting George Bush. We are, most vitally, not engaged in the Middle East when great crises in that region will shape events over the foreseeable future. We have diluted our credibility by weakening our voice. Iraq has been a traditional friend of India but there is no evidence of history in the government’s policy towards the country or the region. India could have been, and should have been, a player in the conflict-resolution process that will be the next phase of the Middle East dynamic. That reservoir of goodwill for India is not completely empty. Pranab Mukherjee, who worked so closely with Mrs Indira Gandhi, should know that. He is now in a position to replenish that reservoir.
And he does not have much time.