11 November 2013: A country that is internally rived can make little impact on international politics. This is the key lesson to learn from Manmohan Singh’s abject inability to attend the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka. The current controversy is merely symptomatic of a deeper malaise, and in a sense, it has little to do with the Sri Lanka regime’s horrible treatment of Tamils, although objectively, that would qualify for strained or broken ties anytime, anywhere. Without going to the root of the crisis, commentators and former Indian Foreign Service officers are bewailing the prime minister’s absence at Colombo, as though Manmohan Singh has shown spectacular effectiveness at other world forums. There is political churning in India, and the existing order has been unable to address the rising aspirations at all levels, of which growing regionalism is but one facet. Its long shadow naturally casts abroad.

India’s rise has been grossly stymied in the two terms of Manmohan Singh, which add up to one whole lost decade. For a country that has been independent for only sixty-six years, this constitutes an enormous deficit. In these squandered 10 years, India has weakened politically, economically and militarily. The blame for this squarely lies with Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. The Centre has become weak because Sonia Gandhi wanted an infirm prime minister. She dominated politics for the sole aim of remaining in power. On one hand, the wholesale loot of the country was permitted. On the other, growth was sacrificed for policies designed to win votes. There was nothing to indicate from her actions that she wanted a rising India. All she desired was power without responsibility and the perpetuation of dynastic politics. Its impact has been felt in all areas, not the least of which includes foreign affairs.

A serious power is defined by its force on world politics both during periods of activity and in dormancy. To the extent that history is cyclical, all great powers rise and fall. It happened to the Roman and British empires; post-Soviet Russia went through a phase of decline; and Germany and Japan have yet to emerge from the exhaustion imposed by their defeat in the Second World War, but the first stirrings of the return to previous greatness are becoming increasingly felt. The United States is a different order of power which lapses into periods of isolationism. But its greatness is defined by its always remaining on everyone’s mind. It was on Winston Churchill’s mind when France fell and it was Adolf Hitler’s fervent hope that America would stay out of the hostilities. China comes in the league of great powers because it has an abiding sense of history and remains bound to a civilizational thread that reaches beyond the pre-history of the legendary Yellow Emperor.

These are the handful of great powers which will rule the world and India has not the smallest chance of getting there unless it puts its house in order. For a democracy to rise, the first condition is complete internal political consensus. This consensus should not be confused with party political unanimity which will never obtain on all issues. Internal consensus means at its simplest that all the politico-territorial constituents of a state see the greatest benefit of remaining together and pulling in the same direction and are comfortable with the overall leadership of the Centre. This consensus has broken down because the Centre is no longer seen as impartial and even-handed and is observed manifestly to be guided by party political considerations. When Tamil Nadu or Karnataka or Bihar or West Bengal complains that the Centre is biased against them, it hurts the consensus, and it rankles for long when the Central government dismisses the concerns. If Mamata Bannerjee has reached the conclusion that the Centre has no stake in the success or the welfare of West Bengal, you cannot expect her to be accommodative and gracious to Bangladesh, foreign affairs be damned. The same goes for Tamil Nadu, although Sri Lanka has been doing worse, creating differences between the state and the Centre.

Sadly, this state of affairs is not restricted to Manmohan Singh’s government. Sharp differences over foreign policy did not emerge earlier because the Congress was the single hegemonic party and aspirational levels were not quite as high as now nor the spread of information and knowledge so fast and wide. Jawaharlal Nehru would have been a crashing disaster in the present, worse than in his own time. For all her successes in consolidating India as a regional power, Indira Gandhi would have floundered with her comprehensive inability to govern democratically. Rajiv Gandhi was an all round failure and left India with a bitter taste for power projection after the Sri Lanka misadventure. Atal Behari Vajpayee achieved a degree of internal consensus and set India on the road to rise but his legacy has been squandered by Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh is reduced to a nominal prime minister, loosely reminiscent of Zhou Enlai when he fell out with Mao Zedong, but Sonia Gandhi is hardy the Great Helmsman, whose entire being, warts and all, was devoted to China.

The prime minister after Manmohan Singh has to be equally devoted to gaining internal cohesion, and restore the consensus so necessary for the smooth conduct of foreign policy. But foreign policy cannot be conducted in the old way, where diplomats set limits on the achievable. Foreign policy must be driven by rise. Power propagates itself. South Asia will come to its senses once India becomes politically cohesive, grows economically, and when strategic vision drives military expansion. India necessarily will grow insular till the 2014 election delivers a new, strong government. But it should never be forgotten that foreign policy is solely the projection of internal politics. Indian foreign policy must meet Indian objectives and goals. Anything short of that is unacceptable. The sooner that bogus internationalism is buried, the better.