Turkey’s recent election was interesting for a number of reasons – including what it says about politics in India.
Turkey’s centre-right AKP regime, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to have consolidated its position, with its third triumph on the trot. This is a remarkable achievement, and Erdogan is eyeing a larger role for Turkey within the Middle East. Political bickering in Iran, meanwhile, has only increased the possibility, and plausibility, of Turkey stepping up in the region.
Interestingly, Erdogan’s erudite professor come foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, also ran for office. It was an unusual move, made all the more interesting by the fact that as part of his campaign he distributed classic books such as Great Expectations, in addition to copies of his own works on foreign policy. It’s a move that raises some pertinent questions about India’s overall approach to politics and foreign policy.
First, Davutoglu showed that it was possible to blend his image as a technocrat with a little populism. By distributing his own books, meanwhile, he has been able to share his worldview and vision for the role Turkey can play on the world stage.
In contrast, when was the last time any Indian politician distributed a book in an election campaign? It’s common for politicians here to distribute pamphlets with derogatory remarks about opponents, or else bicycles, TV sets and consumer goods aimed at buying voter loyalty. But not books.
Some might argue that Davutoglu’s approach wouldn’t work in India. But no one seems brave enough to even try. Even the youth brigade, led by Rahul Gandhi, has failed to provide refreshing alternatives to the usual hackneyed ways of campaigning.
But there’s another interesting comparison to be made. Davutoglu was handpicked to be Turkey’s foreign minister in large part because of his specialist foreign policy knowledge. Yet despite India being a rising global power, the role of foreign minister isn’t seen as a particularly desirable one in politics here. And sadly, its importance appears to be diminishing.
The fact is that in India, the office of the foreign minister doesn’t command nearly the sort of authority it should, or indeed did in the past. Ongoing turf wars with the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Home Affairs only complicate things further. While foreign policy in other countries is certainly influenced by domestic politics, in India it’s being completely overshadowed by intra-party and intra-government feuds.
Unfortunately, the experiment of having former UN Under Secretary General for Communications and Public InformationShashi Tharoor as foreign minister, an appointment many hoped would bring a breath of fresh air to India’s lethargic and chaotic foreign policy making, lasted less than a year.
If technocrats aren’t acceptable to the Indian system, then it’s important to ensure that the most promising of politicians are put to work in the foreign policy cell of political parties. Yet neither the ruling Congress Party nor the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party can claim to have any outstanding individuals manning foreign policy. This is an unhealthy trend, and will hamper progressive thinking on India’s position in the world.
The result of such stagnation is that India’s perspective on foreign policy is restricted to the country’s relationships with China, Pakistan and the United States. But this is based purely on short-term political calculations, rather than the long-term interests of India. The approach towards these three countries is reactionary, mostly based on media reports, and so there’s no clear roadmap for future ties. While there are certainly advisors (most of whom are retired diplomats) very few have the audacity to provide bold input.
India can’t become a superpower merely through growing its economy. Rising economic strength needs to be complemented by a pro-active foreign policy that can only come from individuals who can balance national interests with international realities. For India’s sake, let’s hope that the Ministry of External Affairs can find the talent and the vision to create a foreign policy that takes note of domestic politics, but isn’t subservient to it.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.