Recently, a conversation with a distinguished former Indian bureaucrat turned to a discussion on abuse of power by politicians. I submitted it was vitally important for civil servants to stand up to wayward ministers. Those days are gone, the venerable gentleman remarked. Today, he added, IAS officers toe the line, because they are afraid of consequences or envision favours in return for being pliable.
The IFS used to be relatively immune from such insecurity. But in the past five years Indian diplomats have bowed to unjustified diktats from the Prime Minister’s Office as never before. The Ministry of External Affairs and its missions have pandered to the self-aggrandizement of an individual, his whims and fancies, instead of upholding the national interest.
The net result is relations with Pakistan have reached rock bottom. Ties with China are tense. And the special relationship with Nepal has been blown to smithereens. The tilt towards the United States annoyed trusted friend Russia until Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale hand-held Narendra Modi to a fence mending meeting with Vladimir Putin. India’s fundamental approach of equidistance from super powers has been dissolved on the advice of US-based RSS elements, who matter immeasurably to Narendra Modi.
The poor performance on the export front is a reflection of diplomatic failure. Trade with Britain has collapsed and confrontation on extradition and immigration issues have emerged as irritants. Thus, strategic understanding is now closest with France among P5 countries. But this may be coming at a cost.
Paris’ co-operation on intelligence sharing prompted Modi to persevere with the Rafale combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force, even after the Eurofighter Typhoon – equally capable in the IAF’s assessment - was offered at a cheaper price. A favour to France on security considerations is acceptable; but perhaps not if the expenditure violates the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Two days before the largesse was granted to the French, the then foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, was unaware of the impending move. Besides, nothing has come to light about him or his ministry objecting to the cavalier manner in which the contract was awarded. The Ministry of Defence, to its credit, did oppose the arbitrary style; but was brushed aside.
The interface with Israel – shrewdly opened up by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao to neutralise the threat from the West, especially America, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union – is in the national interest. But Modi’s embrace of the controversial Binyamin Netanyahu was typically not thought through. Indeed, an unconditional acknowledgement of Israeli sovereignty over Palestine weakens India’s accusation of illegal Pakistani occupation of Jammu & Kashmir.
Since 2015 a disproportionate amount of time and money has been spent by the Indian diplomatic missions to popularise Yoga, which is identified with Hindutva. With respect, Yoga is a sedentary form of exercise. No athlete has ever won an Olympic gold medal practicing it. It mirrors a soft touch, not soft power. Little diplomatic benefit or mainstream exposure is accrued from it. On the contrary, it deflects embassies or high commissions from their primary responsibilities.
The Hindutva foreign policy has been further escalated by reportedly irregular appointments at diplomatic missions - these to surreptitiously monitor implementation of the majoritarian agenda. Such absorption has seemingly by-passed recruitment rules. The MEA, instead of putting its foot down, has turned a blind eye.
Above all, the topmost priority has been devoted to aggressively promoting Modi as a superman before the world.
Foreign media have largely, but not totally, ignored the propaganda. Therefore, the pummelling has rubbed off to a certain extent on indigenous people; and a majority of Hindus of Indian origin have unsuspectingly been won over. In fact, Modi has felt most at home when interacting with overseas Indians; and correspondingly sometimes out of his depth in dealing with a few of his counterparts. Indeed, he has rather unbecomingly forced himself on heads of government, hugging them, without pondering whether they are appreciating the familiarity.