Monday, August 09, 2010

The Refuge Of Affectations

The sullen demeanor Shyam Saran wore on his departure from Kathmandu should not obscure us to the success he believes he achieved during his three-day sojourn as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy. Notwithstanding the secrecy with which the former foreign secretary conducted himself, as far as the substance of his confabulations went, Saran succeeded in widening the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Baburam Bhattarai rift – conceding nothing – in keeping with the original intent of the 12-point accord.
Contrary to expectations in many quarters, the former ambassador to Nepal was not on a mission to handpick the next prime minister. He wanted to throw down the dice once again in an effort to force the other two principal players, China and the United States, to make their next move. In a sense, he was on a mission to salvage his personal credibility. And to understand the mission, it becomes to understand the man.
Saran represents that face of India’s Nepal policy that has taken the hardest hit. The Sitaram Yechuris and S.D. Munis could have hollered at the top of their lungs forever on the wisdom of abandoning the monarchy. Without the pulling the Indian External Affairs Ministry firmly in their camp, Messrs. Y&M wouldn’t have stood a chance. Predilection and circumstances made Saran the perfect medium.
Emulating the perfect babu, Saran rose in the Ministry of External Affairs by playing all sides. He succeeded in wooing opposite personalities like A.P. Venkateshwaran and Muchkund Dubey with equal gusto, keeping his true self to himself. Working the media, he even succeeded in turning an upsetting appointment as ambassador to Myanmar into an act of energetic altruism.
Returned to power in 2004, the Congress-led government of Manmohan Singh merely confirmed its Bharatiya Janata Party-led predecessor’s decision to catapult Saran to the position of foreign secretary. His admirers on left, however, never lost faith in his ideological moorings. The Maoists on both sides of the border had to be stopped before they eroded the space of the mainstream communists.
Despite his own predilections against the monarchy as an historical anachronism, Saran as foreign secretary could not have pushed the MEA to make a final break and press the Maoist-Seven Party Alliance 12-point agreement. But External Affairs Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh’s disgraceful exit from the ministry on allegations of complicity in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, left the field open for Saran. After King Gyanendra helped shift South Asia’s geopolitical locus at the Dhaka summit in November 2005, Saran won over many skeptics.
The Manmohan Singh government, despite its reliance on the Indian left, needed more prodding. Governments come and go but the Indian nation would have to live with the consequences of any precipitous move, especially one entailing the abolition of an entire institution. With Singh having assumed direct charge over the MEA, Saran was well placed to present his case personally to the top man. King Gyanendra, familiar with Saran’s antecedents and antics as ambassador and after, excluded him from joining the palace deliberations with Karan Singh. Saran, who considered himself nothing less than a co-equal on that mission, was understandably irked. Once back home, he almost singlehandedly pulled India away from the twin-pillar policy by presenting to his government as a fait accompli the “mood” on Kathmandu’s streets.
Like some of his predecessors who had become foreign secretary after ambassadorial or No.2 stints at Lainchour, Saran was already seeing himself in larger-than-life hues. He had the added disadvantage of assuming charge of the MEA bureaucracy after the viceroyalty in Nepal. Exacerbating the megalomania was the fact that he worked directly under the prime minister until October 2006. Once Pranab Mukherjee became foreign minister, Saran’s glory days ended.
The Indian Administrative Service, eager to ensure its primacy over all things bureaucratic, rose up against Prime Minister Singh’s effort to get Saran a year-long extension. So he won appointment as the Prime Minister’s Office as a special representative. His media buddies lavished him with praise for the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and prophesied better things in his new brief: climate-change envoy.
Meanwhile, the new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon – who like Saran superseded more experienced officers – gave a candid admission of how difficult his job had become as the MEA pulled in different directions under his predecessor. On Nepal, New Delhi’s tentativeness had become clearer. Every move in Nepal’s republican set-up was now a work in progress measurable against the Saran roadmap. By the time Menon became National Security Adviser, Saran had sunk deeper in conflict with State Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. There was little he could do but head for the PMO exit door.
With the prospect of irrelevance looming larger, Saran could no longer see his judgment questioned so widely. So he contrived the pretense that the centrality of the 12-point agreement – the weakening of the Nepalese Maoists – remained as workable as ever. The Nepal mission, Maila Baje understands, was largely drawn up at Saran’s own initiative.
So what’s the deal here? By appearing to prop up Dr. Bhattarai, Saran believes he can restrain Dahal from hobnobbing any further with royalists as well as Beijing. Should Dr. Bhattarai get the premiership, his own pro-Indian image would be an albatross around the Maoists’ neck making the prospect of a party split untenable. That way, the Americans, forced to deal with the Maoists as a single organization, would be less emboldened to play off the Indians and Chinese against one other.
The secret meetings that really counted for Saran were the ones with Dahal and Dr. Bhattarai. While reminding each of the commitments he had made during the 12-point agreement negotiations, Saran must have been explicit in spelling out his expectations as well as the cost of non-compliance. Dr. Bhattarai himself has added his voice – albeit still muffled – to the chorus against foreign interference, hasn’t he?