The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has maintained continuity in foreign policy, but it has also made some departures. As we have seen so often in Indian politics, a party, once in power, continues policies it had criticized while in the opposition. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has simply continued the foreign, economic, and security policies of the Vajpayee government. The reforms Singh himself initiated as finance minister have delivered to him sustained growth of 6 percent as he became prime minister. That has been enough to win India a promotion in world power rankings.
The foreign policy challenge is for India to use its new strength to sustain and accelerate its economic growth and to preserve its security. To these ends India needs to influence individual states as well as broader international agreements. Indian petroleum diplomacy has seen some success under the UPA government. A $40 billion deal for natural gas with Iran decisively put India in the running in the global energy-sourcing race. Also, relations between India and China are improving due to the explosive growth of trade between the two. Relations with America have not seen any breakthroughs under Singh, but the momentum built up under Vajpayee has continued. The shift of wealth and power to Asia is making itself felt in Indian foreign policy.
In the economic arena also Singh has largely continued the policies of the previous government, with only cosmetic changes. The 2004 elections were a cry for employment by the voters, but Singh will not listen. He is delivering economic growth, but with very few jobs. Labor law reform, the only reform that matters now, is off the agenda. In foreign relations, this means India will continue to grow at a leisurely pace while China races ahead. So India will fall gradually behind in relative terms. In the longer term sustained growth in the information sector may allow India to catch up with China’s manufacturing-based boom. But by then another generation of Indians will have been sacrificed to poverty.
India’s conventional military capability has grown steadily since 1991. Keeping military spending under 2.5 percent of GDP, successive governments managed to build a significant conventional advantage over Pakistan and this is one of the main reasons for the recent improvements in Kashmir. The agreement on bus service across the line of control in Kashmir is the most important breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations since the ceasefire along the line of control initiated in November 2003. Passengers will use “crossing permits” instead of passports and visas. That agreement respects Pakistani sensitivities about territorial symbolism and allows India to check for terrorists. There was also an important agreement for a rail crossing between Rajasthan and Sindh, reflecting the new power of Mohajir political forces in Karachi. These moves represent Musharraf’s decision to continue normalizing relations with India without receiving any concessions on India’s claims to Kashmir. It has disappointed hawkish and fundamentalist elements in Pakistan. Musharraf will have to purge such elements from the military and other positions or face coup efforts.
The military advantage over Pakistan is important not only to discourage Pakistani adventurism, but also to discourage China from investing in Pakistani military strength as a means of tying down India. Pakistani missile and nuclear development in the 1990s was clearly assisted by China. On the other hand, it is difficult to identify major new weaponry in Pakistan since 2000 that China has assisted. There are Sino-Pakistani joint military projects, but their results have been scanty. These facts are helpful to India’s relationship with China.
The United States has been generous with military aid to Pakistan over the decades, and remains so in some respects. There has been talk of the United States supplying F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan. American officials have not denied this possibility. Still, America is not likely to actually transfer F-16s to Pakistan. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted, if things go awry in Pakistan, the United States would need its nuclear weapons dealt with swiftly. America has a vested interest against introducing weapons into Pakistan that would hamper such an effort. These realities have introduced greater stability to U.S.-India relations.
The Nepal coup and India’s refusal to attend the South Asian summit meeting in Dhaka call attention to India’s relations with the other South Asian states. Both Nepal and Bangladesh have kept themselves poorer due to their determination to keep their separate political identity from India. With modest cultural management the two states could easily have maintained their distinct identities and still made the most of their economic opportunities with India, but both countries have instead suffered highly destructive politics. Of late, Bangladesh has taken some steps to improve their energy and transit cooperation with India. Nonetheless, the Khaleda Zia government’s alliance with fundamentalist parties has stopped it from moving adequately against domestic and anti-India terrorists. In Nepal, India is likely to support the king against the Maoists and support democratic parties against the dictatorship of the king.
Singh has persevered diligently in the same direction as his predecessor, and has scored a major success with the Kashmir bus agreement. But the effort of the voters last year to substantially improve governance remains frustrated.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.