Whenever political opponents write Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political obituary, he manages to make some kind of bold, redeeming foreign policy move.
Critics maintain that Singh is a weak leader, yet the prime minister stood by the Indo-US nuclear deal back in 2008, despite this meaning that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had to part ways with its Left allies. While many have argued that Singh failed to properly sell the deal to the Indian public, there’s no doubt that the agreement enhanced his stature and banished the misconception that he’s simply an economist, out of his depth in the hustle and bustle of political life.
Another issue over which the prime minister has come in for criticism is his handling of ties with Pakistan. Opposition parties – and even many lawmakers within his own party – have expressed frustration with Singh’s firm commitment to engaging with Pakistan. But the prime minister’s neighbourly agenda received a shot in the arm in March of this year, when Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani accepted his Indian counterpart’s invitation to join him for the semi-final of the Cricket World Cup, in which India was playing Pakistan. This masterstroke of sport diplomacy was widely praised, even among some of Singh’s usual critics.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since March, India's engagement with Pakistan has continued uninterrupted with meetings between the two countries’ commerce secretaries, home secretaries and external affairs ministers. In addition, engagement between the two countries has been decoupled from their respective ties with the United States. Indeed, it has been noticeable that while relations between Pakistan and the United States have deteriorated rapidly this year, India hasn’t tried to exploit the divisions between Washington and Islamabad.
Singh deserves credit for his determination to push on with engagement that may be difficult, but which is undoubtedly in India's interest. But his boldness isn’t confined to Pakistan. In recent weeks, for example, Singh has made it abundantly clear at the UN General Assembly that India supports statehood for the Palestinians. This is despite US opposition and the fact that India’s relations with Israel have improved considerably in recent years.
In addition, Singh accepted, in principle, the invitation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Iran after the two leaders met on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly session last month. The prime minister should be praised for managing to maintain close ties with the United States while trying to engage with Iran. Certainly, with the United States pulling out of Afghanistan, India needs to ensure a harmonious relationship with Tehran. But Singh’s position on Iran is also an encouraging indicator that India maintains an independent foreign policy, based on its own national interests. It all sends a clear message that India is a confident player on the world stage.
Despite – or arguably because – he doesn’t have his own political base, Manmohan Singh has been one of the few prime ministers who has been able to blend idealism and realism. Whatever his shortcomings on the domestic front, this surely should be recognized.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.