Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a busy man these days - on a legacy tour, trying to underscore his credentials as a foreign policy leader of consequence. At home, though, he remains isolated, marginalized by his party, mocked by the opposition and hounded by the national media. Not surprising, therefore, that at the end of his 10-year stint at the helm of Indian politics, he is seeking refuge in foreign lands.
Singh visited the United States in September for the UN General Assembly meeting and then the Association for South-East Asian Nations summit in Brunei, together with a bilateral visit to Indonesia, before heading off again, first to Russia and then to China, two critical states in India's foreign policy matrix. On the surface, New Delhi's foreign policy is doing well - major partnerships look steady and various joint declarations proclaim a convergence of interests. But a closer examination suggests that, in the name of multipolar diplomacy and non-alignment, Indian foreign policy is in danger of becoming rudderless, especially with economic decline and political turmoil at home. India's major relationships are suffering as questions emerge in Washington about India's rise, in Moscow about the gravitation to the West, in the East and Southeast Asia about India as credible balancer - all this emboldens China.
India's ties with the United States, which Singh bolstered with the signing of the US-India civil nuclear pact, are now flagging. There's a sense of despondency about the future of India as a potential strategic partner in Washington, unprecedented in the last two decades. The growing differences between the two today are not limited to one or two areas but spread across most areas of bilateral concern. The United States is unhappy that despite valiant efforts to bring India into the nuclear regime the nation has yet to make headway in selling nuclear reactors there. India is concerned by the US immigration changes and forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan.
During Singh's recent meeting with US President Barack Obama, no progress was made on issues apart from strengthening defense cooperation. Singh reiterated concerns stressed during a one-hour meeting with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, both attending the UN General Assembly meeting in September, over terror emanating from Pakistani soil and the need for Islamabad to rein in elements responsible for the violence. Obama politely thanked Singh "for what has been a consistent interest in improving cooperation between India and Pakistan." In a separate meeting with Sharif, Obama urged cooperation, pointing out that "billions of dollars have been spent on an arms race... and those resources could be much more profitably invested in education, social welfare programs on both sides of the border." In turn, Sharif offered "commitment to build a cordial and cooperative relationship with India." The net result of this triangular diplomacy so far has been unprecedented volatility on the Indo-Pak border with the Pakistani Army violating a ceasefire in operation since 2003 in an attempt to once again internationalize Kashmir issue.
Russia and India, meanwhile, are both keen to emphasize that Pakistan's bid to rehabilitate Taliban is not an acceptable outcome in the aftermath of a US drawdown but have yet to figure out a way to influence rapidly evolving realities on the ground.
For all the talk of "time-tested" Indo-Russian ties, the two sides feel the pressures of a changing global context. Bilateral trade is struggling to cross the measly $11 billion mark, and Russia's privileged position as India's defense supplier of choice is under pressure as India shifts to the purchase of smart weaponry, which Russia is ill-equipped to provide. The Indian military has also been critical of relying too heavily on Russia for defense acquisitions, especially in light of the lengthy dispute over refitting the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, renamed INS Vikramaditya, supposed to be handed off to India in 2006. New Delhi expected that contracts on the construction of third and fourth nuclear reactors at Kudankulum would be finalized during Singh's visit, but Russia had liability concerns. For all the brouhaha about US pressures, India's old friends, Russia and France, also resist entering the Indian civil nuclear power sector.
Russia's growing closeness with China is also troubling for India as it faces an aggressive China on its borders.