Left-free, new government to focus on volatile neighbours

May 17th, 2009 - 6:32 pm ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Manish Chand
New Delhi, May 17 (IANS) Armed with a renewed electoral mandate that liberates it from the pressure tactics of the anti-US Left parties, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is set to pursue a more robust foreign policy that will deal with a restive neighbourhood, tackle the China challenge and have a more vigorous engagement with the US.

The unambiguous verdict in favour of the UPA has set to rest anxieties about the future of the India-US nuclear deal, the showpiece of the Manmohan Singh government’s first term, and the trajectory of the India-US relations that was fiercely contested by the Communist parties.

“With the new confidence he has got with a clear mandate and the Left parties out of the way, the prime minister will be able to assert a more positive and pro-active role for India on the global stage, which we would not have been able to pursue before,” Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary, told IANS.

“There will be broad continuity in policy. The major initiatives taken by the government will continue,” he underlined.

As results trickled in Saturday, Washington, which feared a Left-dictated government in New Delhi, heaved a sigh of relief as President Barack Obama congratulated India on its “historic” national elections, saying he looks forward to continue working with the Indian government to enhance the “warm partnership” between the two countries.

But the India-US relationship may not be smooth sailing all the way. “The India-US relationship will be strong and robust, but there are still major differences on issues like Pakistan, Afghanistan, protectionism and CTBT. Managing the relationship will require delicate handling,” stressed Mansingh, a former envoy to the US.

Dealing with a volatile neighbourhood - with Sri Lanka’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entering its final lap, Nepal enmeshed in power-play following the resignation of its first Communist prime minister Prachanda and Pakistan facing an existential crisis due to the Taliban - will be top priority of the new government.

Having a clear mandate will help the government to be more decisive in handling a delicate security situation in a difficult neighbourhood, said K. Subrahmanyam, a strategic expert.

“Manmohan Singh will have to make an important choice in the next few months about resumption of the composite dialogue that New Delhi suspended after the Nov 26, 2008 Mumbai mayhem. Early this month, the prime minister reiterated that there won’t be any restoration of dialogue till Pakistan prosecutes the Mumbai culprits.”

G. Parthasarathy, a former ambassador to Pakistan and a former aide to late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, does not foresee the resumption of bilateral dialogue in the near future unless there is perceptible movement on bringing the Mumbai attackers to justice. Mansingh agrees with this assessment, but counsels a more “statesman-like” approach.

“We have to come to terms with Pakistan. We can’t just freeze the dialogue because by doing so we will be undoing the gains of the last four years,” he said.

With reports of the LTTE heading for liquidation and mass suicides by Tamil Tigers, the situation in Sri Lanka will require the new government’s immediate attention. “If the LTTE is crushed, India will have to play a major role to ensure that the Tamils get a decent deal. There is a potential of friction here as a triumphant government in Sri Lanka may not move in that direction,” Mansingh said.

In Nepal, the government will have to put out the fire before it spreads as the power struggle in Kathmandu portends protracted instability that may stall the process of framing the constitution.

Grappling with “the China challenge” will also test the new government’s diplomatic resources and judgement. India is keeping a watch on Chinese strategy of encirclement in the neighbourhood, specially Beijing’s moves to acquire greater clout in Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

More than six months after China tried to block consensus in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group for resuming global nuclear trade with India, Beijing refused to approve a $2.9 billion development loan for India at the board meeting of the Asian Development Bank because Arunachal Pradesh was one of the areas where the projects would be carried out, and Beijing considers Arunachal Pradesh disputed territory.

Having a clear mandate will certainly help the new government in dealing with this cluster of foreign policy challenges. “We don’t have the albatross of the Left around our neck. No longer will this government be subject to the Communist call to accommodate China despite the Chinese hostility,” said Parthasarathy.

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