India is not an international Tendulkar

Indians are like Americans. Neither are overly concerned by foreign policy. The depth and range of their continental nations is enough to absorb a the limted time span that is available to a citizen, beyond the every day travails of living; do we have enough water inthe tank or is the invertor working?(India) is the babysitter going to be on time today (US); is the car due for servicing (India) Is the car due for selling (US); are we running out of cooking gas (India) do we have enough food in the refrigerator (US); how many bills are unpaid (common) and finally can we afford onions today (only India)?

It is odd therefore that the Indian government spends so much time and energy on foreign affairs. It is never clear what India gains specifically from maintaining a presence at 125 overseas missions and intensive, loud, always vociferous but rarely credible, participation in all international fora. The annual budget of the Ministry of External Affairs (Rs 11,700 crores) is larger than atleast sixteen other major ministries including the Ministries of Power; Atomic Energy; Science and Technology; Environment and Forests; Land Resources; Urban Development.  It is strange that waving the flag overseas should matter so much when there are compelling competing domestic priorities uncared for like covering manholes, improving public transport, providing clean water and toilets for 60% of our citizens .

For starters why not merge the Commerce ministry, the aid sections of the Departmentof Economic Affairs and the climate change division of the Ministry of Environment with external affairs since all these involve dealing almost excusively with external actors. There are obvious synergies in consolidating such functions and hopefully significant savings too. What about cutting down the number and strength of our overseas missions, particulatly those in developed countries, where we are inconsequential, beyond being a visa office and reallocating staff where they matter (but don’t enjoy first world comforts) like in Africa and Asia.

More significantly why does India always bat above its height in international affairs when it is not an international Tendulkar. This tendency to loom large externally, without pulling one’s weight domestically, reeks of grand standing. I wonder if it fools anyone abroad. India is an economic midget; a lower middle income country (with a per capita GDP even lower than the average for all Sub Saharan African Countries) with a long history of underachievement and below potential performance. Surely there must be merit in adopting a self-interested stance, focusing on what directly benefits us, keeping our heads above water ut below the radar and let the big boys (the US, China, EU, Japan, Russia) look after the World, It is in our interest to be non-threatening and focused on enlarging our economic pie without enlarging our international political weight.

For all our “international political presence”, Indians require visas to enter more countries that most other nationalities. This is because too many of us are desperate to get away to the developed World by hook or by crook; away from poverty,  exclusion and diminishing economic opportunity. The vast majority of Indians abroad are migrant labor. These are the people our missions are meant to represent. I wonder how many Ambassadors and Consular Staff would be happy, or have the training, to play the role of a “nanny” a “social protection” role;  canvassing for the rights of these needy Indians in a low key manner, managing their grievances, descending to their level to provide them access. The task our overseas representatives get profiled for are international protocals, meeting with high dignatries and facilitating large business deals. Are our Ambassadors only brokers of rich India or do they have the more onerous and less glamorous responsibility to protect all Indians overseas? I don’t for a minute doubt that the Foreign Service can excel at the “social protection” aspect of their work. The problem is which direction do the incentives of their job drive them?

India is too fragile economically to rub shoulders with the US, China or even Russia. We are not South Asia’s “big brother”. We may be numerous and big in size but we are poor and badly organised.  Nations are not Sumo wrestlers any more. It is the mocktail of diplomatic agility, economic nimbleness, internal political and social accord, wealth sharing, opportunties for a citizen to grow through international partnerships which makes a Nation strong. All these point at tacking domestic concerns before we burn money overseas.

The performance measure for a reformed and consolidated external affairs ministry should not be getting India the veto power in the UN Security Council. It should rather be to achieve a surplus CAD by pushing exports and foreign investment and the establishment of a network of trade based international security partnerships, which allows us a 5% reduction in the defence budget every year till we reach  a share of 5 to 10% of our annual budget. Currently it is a high 20%. We are too poor to afford that. The model should be Malaysia not Singapore, the US, Russia or Pakistan…big military spenders all.

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