In mid-April 2021, one of India’s distinguished Foreign Ministers of recent times, K. Natwar Singh, was driven to the Prime Ministerial residence in New Delhi for a meeting. He might, in the normal course, have discussed various matters of import, not the covid situation alone, with the Prime Minister. His forte is diplomacy. The initial “K” stands for “Kunwar”; he is not directly related to the ruling family of the former Jat state of Bharatpur (in the Matsya region of yore, not very far from the national capital) and is closely connected, through marriage, with princely Patiala.
Natwar Singh attended educational institutions like St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and entered the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1953. By virtue of his own writings, as well as other sources, he comes across as a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, especially of Indira Gandhi. He was Secretary General of the seventh Non-Aligned Summit held in New Delhi in March, 1983. President Fidel Castro of Cuba had been Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for three years and handed over the baton to the then Indian Prime Minister. Later, Rajiv Gandhi included Natwar Singh in the Congress ministry formed in early 1985.
His career—diplomatic and political—prospered, given his professional skills and calibre and the patronage extended by the First Family. He has been generous in praise of erstwhile junior colleagues of the IFS who have been calling the shots. Nor did he himself look back till eventually departing the Union Cabinet (as Minister of External Affairs) in the UPA-I led by Manmohan Singh in 2005.
He contributes to The Sunday Guardian.
During his recent interaction with the PM, he may have brought up or touched upon what seem serious worries in the domain of India’s foreign policy.
To begin with, a dilemma exists in respect of Indo-Russian relations, not only with reference to Moscow’s growing ties with Islamabad and its particular proximity to China, but also the apparent lack of accommodation shown towards India on Afghanistan. A critical flashpoint relates to commencement of Russia’s delivery of the S-400 Air Defence System to India, notwithstanding apprehensions of attracting US sanctions. Russia is now Pakistan’s second largest defence supplier. This time around, Sergey Lavrov became the first Russian Foreign Minister to visit Pakistan directly after India. He received red-carpet treatment there and met Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Army Chief, General Bajwa.
India’s rapidly emerging strategic partnership with the United States was shaken by the passage of an American warship in Lakshadweep waters, in the wake of a much-publicized visit of their Defence Secretary to New Delhi that took recourse to “diplomatic channels” to convey concern. The US rejoinder was couched in tougher language and the episode would have left some “red faces” in the Foreign Office. For a growing section of public opinion, the White House did not respond with a sense of urgency to high-level requests from New Delhi and by the CEO of the Pune-based Serum Institute to lift the embargo on export of raw materials needed to ramp up the production of vaccines by the company in India. A spokesperson of the US State Department said that the first obligation of the Biden administration was to fully address the requirements of the American people. Interestingly, enough, Ed Markey, Massachusetts Senator, who has been no friend of India when it comes to human rights and who bitterly opposed the US-India nuclear deal, has urged the White House controlled by his own party to intervene. He tweeted: “We have the resources to help, and other people need it; that makes it our moral obligation to do so.” Later, medical supplies and equipment began to come in from abroad and from the US, following an entreaty to their NSA, Jake Sullivan.
Some UK parliamentarians are known to have asserted that “human rights” clauses ought to be inserted in trade agreements with India. Had Boris Johnson’s visit materialized, a few things might have got cleared up.
Advancing years may not have restrained Natwar Singh from offering sage advice to the PM on issues such as a more “independent foreign policy and outlook”, of which the NAM was a central pillar. A founding nation of NAM, India had leadership role in this forum which now has a membership of around 120. The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to skip the 17th Summit of the NAM in Venezuela in September 2016 pointed to a drastic re-ordering of the government’s priorities, not just a break with the joint legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah and Tito. Today, India is seeking a change of perception that portrays her as a country shifting its strategy from that of a “balancing” power to one of a “leading” power. Venezuela sensed India’s altered approach.
Nelson Mandela headed the Movement in 1998-99. At the third (and largest) India-Africa Forum Summit held in New Delhi in October, 2015, the PM did not refer to NAM, even though the organization was, traditionally, a bond between the African continent and India. Now, at the centre of a global pandemic and with illness everywhere, one wonders whether the drift away from NAM was such a good idea after all.
The incumbent External Affairs Minister was lately in Abu Dhabi amid reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has, for some time, been holding backchannel talks to restart dialogue between India and Pakistan. The UAE envoy in Washington D.C., Yousef Al Otaiba, whose words carry weight, had earlier said: “We try to be helpful, where we have influence with two different countries, so India-Pakistan was the most recent one.” Pakistan (whose Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, was in Abu Dhabi at around the same time) has welcomed the UAE initiative; India chose to remain silent because this goes against its long-standing position on diplomacy with Pakistan, maintaining that India-Pakistan issues are of bilateral nature and leave no space for third-party mediation or intervention.
The silence in South Block can be deafening. When the silence does break, the news, from India’s view-point, is usually projected as good, even very good, and there is little in it to discourage complacence.
Be that as it may, at this juncture the country’s destiny and its place in the world community, in which it needs more all-weather friends, rests squarely with the top leadership, political and otherwise.
Godspeed to them.
Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI.