This is the second of a two-part post on Manmohan Singh's legacy. Part 1 is here.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has sent farewell letters to a selection of world leaders ahead of leaving office this month. The recipients of these letters will probably be taking a much kinder view of Singh's time in office than the Indian public seems to have done.
The election campaign saw the Prime Minister subject to a degree of criticism that The Economist, for one, thinks rather cruel. The former academic and steward of India's economic reforms in the 1990s was disparaged early in the campaign by the opposition BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Among the BJP's charges was that Singh's handling of the economy was poor, resulting in slow growth and high inflation, a tricky economic combination to resolve.
But in a twist that comes straight from Machiavelli's playbook, Singh also received some harsh criticism from his own party. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance seemed to be trying to shield its candidate, Rahul Gandhi, from responsibility for the party's lackluster showing by heaping scorn on Singh. Though 'Rahul Gandhi was never in the government' is hardly an edifying slogan to round out the campaign, the charge that Singh has failed to communicate his government's achievements to the public throughout his time in office certainly has a grain of truth.
Adding to the sense that the UPA has descended into internal bickering (confirmed by the Congress Party's worst-ever showing in the national election) is the publication of a tell-all book called The Accidental Prime Minister by Singh's former media advisor Sanjay Baru, who paints a picture of a weak-willed prime minister following a political agenda set almost entirely by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi. Baru claims he is a supporter of Singh and that his book is intended to burnish Singh's legacy. But among Baru's claims is that Singh 'weakened the office of the prime minister' to the point of bringing down the dignity of the office itself, a clear overstatement. The book's ambiguous tone (one commentator said Baru's claims have multiple 'readings,' which is a strange idea in the genre of political biography) has simply encouraged the Indian media to dissect just how far Singh's time in office has set India back.
But when the dust of the election settles, Singh's record will no doubt be looked on more kindly in his homeland, and foreign policy is one area where Singh's decade in office been quite successful.
He has overseen stable relations with Pakistan, despite Pakistan's reluctance to address Islamist terrorism, most notably in the wake of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. At his farewell press conference on 3 January, Singh confirmed that he had come close to a peace deal on the Kashmir dispute before the departure of Pervez Musharraf in 2008. During a decade in which Pakistan has had moments of worrying political instability, Singh showed steady nerves and an ability to keep communication channels open. The BJP, which called on Singh to consider military action against Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks, appeals to its base by talking tough on Pakistan. Yet the Kashmir near-deal shows that Singh's softer approach offered the best chance for building trust and promoting the long term security of the subcontinent as a whole.
Back to those farewell letters: one of the key dispatches was to the former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who immediately sent a hand-written reply praising Singh's role in deepening the bilateral relationship.
Sino-Indian relations have been in a phase of trust building, particularly in recent years, albeit with intermittent setbacks on the disputed border. On a visit to China last year Singh issued a joint statement on a strategic and cooperative partnership that included calls to resolve the border issue, pursue defence exchanges and cultivate enhanced economic ties. The Sino-Indian Border Defense Cooperation Agreement, also finalised during the visit, will in theory minimise the chances of conflict arising from unexpected movements in the contested areas. All this is framed by booming economic ties that have seen bilateral trade grow by a factor of 67 between 1998 and 2012. The BJP talks tough on China, but once again, Singh's diplomatic skill and flexibility has left India in a favourable position, and his example should be emulated by the BJP.
Another move that showcases Singh's capacity as a negotiator and his commitment to signaling India's peaceful rise was the Civil Nuclear Agreement with the US, finalised in 2008.
The agreement brought India partially into the global regime to regulate nuclear technology by committing its civilian nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. India has always sought prestige as well as deterrence through its nuclear weapons program, and gaining its exceptional status under the agreement supports that end. To be sure, the deal has not rapidly or radically transformed the Indo-US bilateral relationship. The expected economic benefits have been slow to materialise, and there has been no dramatic shift in India's declared strategic policy. But as Yogesh Joshi argues, on both counts the deal has been the foundation for slow and steady gains, and the level of foreign policy cooperation between India and the US today is unprecedented. This has happened without compromising Indian trust building with Pakistan and China.
Though Singh does not seem like the kind of politician in a rush to write a memoir, he would have some important foreign policy lessons to share.
Photo by Flickr user US Embassy New Delhi.