Mirrors and images

Is it too late to tweak the India story, leverage the external environment for internal benefit?

It was entirely a coincidence that the government announced major economic reforms even as the annual gathering of the heads of diplomatic missions was going on in the capital last week. If the government had cared to ask them, India's hundred-odd ambassadors would have underlined how rapidly Delhi's political credibility has been eroded in the last two years. The Manmohan Singh government did not need Time magazine or The Washington Post to inform it of the severe external costs of the prolonged policy paralysis in Delhi. It's the job of the envoys abroad to provide a clinical assessment of the host governments, their strengths and weaknesses. They are also among the first to sense the shifting external perceptions of a nation.

It needed genius to wreck the extraordinary international optimism about India's prospects into one of profound pessimism and the UPA government seemed to have found a way. Three years ago, when Manmohan Singh returned to power with a bigger mandate, world leaders were tripping over each other in Delhi's power corridors, seeking new partnerships with India. Many of them have checked out since. High external expectations from India were replaced by an older set of perceptions of India as a dysfunctional mass incapable of acting in its own interests. The enthusiasm for India's "soft power" ebbed, paving the way for the return of the more traditional lament of India as a "soft" state.

Unlike in the past, when India was an insular economy, its governments no longer have the luxury of being self-absorbed. With nearly 40 per cent of India's gross domestic product now linked to the world in the form of imports and exports, Delhi's internal performance and external engagement are dynamically interlinked. A failure on the domestic front has international costs, which in turn make it more difficult for India to extricate itself from an unfavourable condition. If the objective of diplomacy is to facilitate India's rapid growth, its effectiveness depends upon the purposefulness of the government at home. In the last two years, Delhi has lost much on both counts. Although the economic reforms announced last week might have come late, Delhi could arguably recover some of its international reputation and leverage the external environment for internal benefit, if it can demonstrate the requisite political will, policy conviction and administrative resolve in the coming days.

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