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30 January 2007: At the Gandhi conference, Sonia Gandhi (no relation) was handsomely feted. On one side, she showed hard pragmatism, as the de facto leader of the UPA government. While condemning nuclear weapons, and arguing for universal disarmament (even Kissinger and George Shultz do now), she accepted the compulsion of India's own deterrence. On the other side though, she seemed to be carried away by the NAMby-pamby, Third Worldism of the likes of Kenneth Kaunda. Mrs Gandhi should be more careful.
Sonia Gandhi occupies a unique place in Indian democracy. Her closest equivalent in the US would be the Clintons, though they don't own the Democratic Party. Her total leadership of the Congress Party and her dominance of the government may be more readily found in dictatorships. But since she and the Congress party operate in a rumbustious democracy like India's, her position is at once strange and all the more powerful. Since she is India's most powerful person – yes, more powerful than prime minister Manmohan Singh – she gets courted as she did at the Satyagraha conference.
But that is only part of the reason. The principle reason is India's growing weight. After the US, Russia and China, India is perhaps the only state making huge geo-political waves. It is not the richer Nato states which are drawing attention. Britain and France have slipped in the points' table, although they remain UN veto powers and NPT nuclear weapons' states. Nor is Germany in the reckoning, despite a powerhouse economy. And Japan, which in the wake of the North Korean nuclear test was seriously reconsidering its own weaponization options, has returned to its old passive pacifism. Remains India, where most eyes are turned.
Since Sonia Gandhi, in effect, leads this India, she was the centre of attraction at the Gandhi conference. But because she has this leadership role, she cannot afford to make miscalculations. She cannot, for example, be seen siding with or opposing the United States. She has a force multiplier effect on the party and government. Her most innocuous gestures may be misconstrued by the party, and a spokesperson may wang off to the acute embarrassment and distress of the government. Equally, the government may misread her, and push off on a policy tangent which could have disastrous consequences.
Currently, a fine balance has been established. Since this piece deals exclusively with strategic policy, we will restrict the field of our comment. Because of Natwar Singh's calamitous stewardship of the foreign ministry, the PMO left him with day-to-day matters and assumed control of sensitive relations and policy-making. That arrangement has not discontinued with Pranab Mukherjee coming in Natwar's place after a long hiatus. But it is also true that Pranab Mukherjee is increasingly becoming his own – and a very levelheaded – foreign minister. A fine balance has been struck in foreign policy-making and in the conduct of external relations.
Obviously, this process took a while to mature. But this process could not have accomplished results without Sonia's indulgence. So, in a sense, Sonia is responsible for preserving this fine balance. This means two things. This separation of powers between the PMO and foreign office on external policy-making and relations is not only necessary but also mandated by the long existence of the establishment and institution of the foreign office. Two, anything Sonia says or does in the public realm could upset this fine balance, and indeed distress India's strategic progress. Sonia Gandhi should ask herself, "Why am I getting this homage?" Objectivity will humble her, and force stillness in her actions. This is India's most important moment.
Blocs and alliances were perhaps de rigueur for the Cold War and the immediate post-Cold War era. But post-post Cold War times require emerging great powers like India to plot their way ahead in a global version of the Big Brother show. There is no room at the top. Room has to be made. For its own reasons, the United States is ready and willing to make us strategic partners. You definitely try to read the other's mind. You ensure no traps are sprung. You take calculated risks. But you don't – absolutely not – abuse the extended hand of friendship.
The likes of Kenneth Kaunda have nothing to lose. Certainly, they are icons of an era and for a generation of Indians who fought survival struggles in Africa in the closing stages of de-colonization and after. But many to most of those Indians have relocated and done brilliantly in the West. And that era ended long before movements like NAM commenced tottering. If India has taken a considered decision to keep away from the current rogue leadership of NAM, surely Mrs Gandhi should be polite and distant from those voices that may upset – and cause to upset – our building strategic relations with the United States. She owes that to the government she leads for all purposes.
Her silence is required on all foreign relations. The high-powered Vladimir Putin visit (Commentary, "Anatomy of a visit," 29 January 2007) tells that the impression of a pro-US tilt is being corrected. There is no urgent necessity for Sonia Gandhi to grandstand on our external ties, therefore. The government is fully equipped to handle that. If she wants an international image for herself, it should not come at the cost of her government and not at India's cost. Was she carried away by Kenneth Kaunda's speech against US wars? Who wouldn't? Women hate wars, because they are war's worst victims. Sonia Gandhi has also suffered terrible personal losses.
And yet, given her special place in the power structure, she cannot reveal of herself in a way to damage foreign relations and our strategic interests. Over today and throughout the week, the government may have to damage control. India is being seriously watched. India-watchers can spin anything from the Gandhi conference. While the damage will be controlled, a spin of absence of foreign policy consensus within the government would cause long-term damage. Our best interests would begin hedging. Our adversaries would get unexpected new openings to create misunderstandings.
In the post-post Cold War world, the room for manoeuvrings is limited to nil