New Delhi: In all the turmoil over demonetization, one thing has gone unnoticed. India has been without a working Foreign Minister since Sushma Swaraj was hospitalized. Her recovery from an imminent kidney transplant would take its due course and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have to fill the vacancy at the earliest. This writer will not draw up a candidates’ list nor comment on a single name making the rounds as a possible successor. In this matter, the Prime Minister’s judgement would be superior. At the same time, the position cannot be left unfilled for much longer.

The world promises to be a topsy-turvy place after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on 20th January. It would be unfair to blame Trump entirely or even substantially for the looming uncertainties and disequilibrium. When a Great Power becomes less sure of itself, goes into decline, and retrenches from global engagements with tiresome regularity as it has happened with the United States under Barack Obama, their cumulative repercussions are bound to overflow the election cycle and bedevil future administrations. In that sense, Trump would be a victim of Obama’s presidency more or less to the same degree as Obama was to George W. Bush’s two terms. Since the United States is a democratic Great Power, the decline is still manageable. It will not come down with a thud like Soviet Russia did or China would if it imperially overstretches itself.

For all manner of contingencies, however, India has to be prepared. The key to being prepared is that India gains a full-fledged Foreign Minister at the earliest. Indian Foreign Ministers do not principally formulate foreign policy. That responsibility firmly vests with the Prime Minister, the elected head of government. At first look, this may seem unusual. It is not. Foreign policy does not exist in isolation. It flows out of domestic politics and constitutes that part of polity that secures the country’s external interests. From the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian Prime Ministers have kept total control of foreign policy-making, and Prime Minister Modi cannot be an exception. But even in these circumstances of wielding curtailed and quite limited powers, Foreign Ministers play a significant role. Their significance has greatly rebounded now as the Donald Trump era comes into play.

Sooner or later, India has to abandon the policy of non-alignment and strategic autonomy. It could be argued that India has scarcely been non-aligned or strategically autonomous since the Cold War ended. Even during the Cold War, India flirted with the two rivalrous blocs. After the 1962 debacle, Nehru desperately leaned towards the US; and Indira Gandhi’s 1971 war victory should not have been possible without the peace and friendship treaty with Soviet Russia. Still, the Cold War put such pressure on the two superpowers for allies that they were often constrained to put up with half-hearted friends. India gained from this scope for ambivalence. The situation that obtains now and in the immediate future does not allow for a large degree of successful high-wire acts. India no longer claims non-alignment as a central policy. There may be some residual nostalgia about the Non-Aligned Movement but that is that. Strategic autonomy had a nicer ring but no longer serves India’s interests sufficiently. The world has grown too multi-polar to suffer the hypocrisy of such terms. Unless two nations are sure of each other’s alliance and all-weather friendship, strategic ties won’t be secure. For example, Japan and India have to enter a formal alliance to manage and stabilize the Indo-Pacific region. India cannot claim strategic autonomy and still expect assistance from the Asia-Pacific region against its northern adversary.

In other words, India has to assess the entire spectrum of external relations and advance ties to its best interests. Prime Minister Modi would need a highly active and energetic Foreign Minister to align the world closer to India’s strategic interests. His core vision and that of the Union cabinet would still drive foreign policy. But its external execution would continue to demand a highly capable and meritorious Foreign Minister. Sushma Swaraj was all these and her successor must carry to office her admirable qualities and compassion. Her successor must be appointed soon.

Editor’s Note: The Reserve Bank might like to explore with the central banks of the US, the UK and Japan about the expeditious printing of Indian currency notes to meet the current currency crunch. Indian gold was pledged overseas and kept in the Bank of England in the early 1990s. If sovereignty was not compromised then, it would be safe with this suggestion too. Obviously, some sort of parliamentary approval would have to be obtained, and the President and the Supreme Court brought into the picture at the same time. The cash crisis needs immediate redress. A cashless economy cannot be imposed before its natural time, which is at least two years away, if not more.