NEW DELHI: In diplomacy clearly speed matters. As Pakistan demonstrated by rushing out a statement highlighting Jammu and Kashmir as the ‘core issue’ and alleged Indian intelligence activities in Balochistan during the meeting of the two foreign secretaries Jaishankar and Aizad Ahmad Chaudhry here today on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference.

The two officials met for 90 minutes and Pakistan issued the statement even before the meeting was over. The statement issued by the Pakistan High Commission claimed that Chaudhry had raised Pakistans concerns of “subversive activities" in Karachi by India, and the “matter of the capture of alleged RAW officer, Kulbushan Jadev. He had also raised the need for a “"a just solution in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Caught by surprise the Foreign Office responded with a statement shortly after on the meeting wherein Jaishankar “emphasised the need for early and visible progress on the Pathankot terrorist attack investigation as well as the Mumbai case trial in Pakistan. He also brought up the listing of JeM leader Masood Azhar in the UN 1267 Sanctions Committee.” He “clearly conveyed that Pakistan cannot be in denial on the impact of terrorism on the bilateral relationship. Terrorist groups based in Pakistan targeting India must not be allowed to operate with impunity.” He asked for “immediate consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav, the former Naval officer abducted and taken to Pakistan.” Both sides, the statement said, spoke of taking the relationship forward “and agreed to remain in touch.” Whatever that means given the nature of the statements and the Pakistan decision to stay with Kashmir and Balochistan at this stage.

India’s foreign policy seems to be going all over the place, with a consistent, cohesive line not visible amidst the blurred responses of the government to key issues. The flip flop flip has moved out of the ambit of New Delhi-Islamabad relations to cover China now with what experts feel could be disastrous for bilateral relations as clearly measures are not being thought through with dramatic responses often ending in a whimper that creates its own complications, both within and outside India.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been almost turned into a secretariat for implementing policy, not making policy. To be fair, this change had come about during former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure with his confidante Brajesh Mishra becoming the all powerful National Security Advisor, a first in India. This practice continued during the ten years of the Congress government with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his NSAs M.K.Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon determining foreign policy with an iron hand at times. Foreign secretaries came to be seen as efficient, or otherwise, depending on their ability to execute orders from the Prime Ministers office as they were not required to determine policy any longer. In fact Singh’s first choice for NSA J.N.Dixit was seen as non-intrusive and mature in his dealing with the Foreign Office, but his early demise proved to be a setback for the Prime Minister then.

Foreign secretary Jaishankar was brought in by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, over and above his seniors, leading to speculation whether he would be the foreign policy czar in the new government. NSA Doval had taken charge, but being from the intelligence background as well his expertise on foreign policy was seen as limited, particularly as the first 18 months of PM Modi’s focus was on governments abroad. However, as the government completes two years in office it is clear that Jaishankar has been relegated to the office of the Foreign Secretary, limited in its reach beyond the Ministry, and Doval has expanded and strengthened his role because of his proximity to PM Modi. The comparison, as a retired ambassador said, is difficult as Jaishankar is under Minister Sushma Swaraj, his power or otherwise flowing from her position in the government. Doval on the other hand, has emerged as the strongman in a government where the Prime Minister and his Office is central to all decision making in not just External Affairs but all government departments.

Jaishankar was regarded by Manmohan Singh as a whiz kid of sorts, who held important ambassadorial positions in China and the US, and clearly his reputation brought him to head the Foreign Office. In the initial days he was seen as a major player in determining foreign policy but over the months this position seems to have been frayed, and not just at the edges. Those who know him well and have worked with him wonder at how Jaishankar who is an old China hand could actually facilitate a Chinese dissidents meeting, knowing as well as the other that New Delhi could not take this to its logical conclusion without disastrous consequences insofar as China was concerned. Menon and Jaishankar, in fact, had been seen as responsible for opening doors for a China dialogue and institutionalising a policy that treated the dragon with kid gloves, and yet with firmness on occasion. This was seen as the way forward, for India to pursue its interests in the region without unnecessary confrontation with Beijing.

The Chinese dissidents meeting is thus, being placed directly at Doval’s door by Indian diplomats who is seen as the architect of this ‘one upmanship’ approach that works for the political leaders as well. All plugs were pulled out to facilitate the Chinese dissident meeting being held on Indian territory by a US organisation, with an invitation being sent and visa given to Dolkun Isa, a dissident who China has declared a ‘terrorist.’ The pressure brought to bear on New Delhi was so intense that it had to give up weeks of preparation, and cancel the visa in a move that has invited ridicule and anger. As a former diplomat said, “China is of course furious, but so are the Chinese dissidents who do not like to be played with for other games.” As he said, it should have been clear to the policy makers that Tibet and dissidence is very sensitive for China and it will not tolerate this “messing around.” Asked what threat could have been issued to make India back off so quickly, he said, “there are any number of things that could feed into a complete nosedive in bilateral relations and I am surprised that India did factor all the consequences into this.”

Doval was in China, almost as the same time as Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, and when Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Moscow meeting with her Russian and Chinese counterparts. Three high level visits at the end of which the decision to revoke Isa’s visa reflected the strong pressure placed on him and the Ministers by Beijing. All three before leaving had insisted that they would take up China’s ‘hidden veto’ against the Indian proposal at the United Nations to sanction Jaish e Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, but came back quiet on this issue and with the decision to revoke the visa that had been issued to Isa just few days ago.

This seems to be the main problem in foreign policy these days. Dramatic gestures without the backup. The Foreign Office is still assuaging French sentiment, whereby the grand gesture of revoking an old, hard negotiated deal, for the purchase of 36 Rafael aircraft in ready to fly condition has been bogged down for months now over pricing. The dramatic announcement was made by PM Modi during his first visit to France, it had French President coming to India as the Republic Day guest, and it had him facing the flak for returning empty handed from Delhi with the Rafale order stuck in the reality of policy and expenditure.

Although New Delhi has been a little more consistent with the United States, here too the promise of signing the Logistics Support Agreement has floundered with the no, yes, of course turning into a distant may be. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter scheduled a visit to New Delhi to sign the agreement that the Americans have been pushing for almost a decade now, but again to no avail. He has returned to Washington without an agreement, with the postponement being seen by defence experts as “indefinite” for the moment. It is no secret that the US was optimistic PM Modi would build on the relationship by taking hard decisions unlike his predecessor who was unable to despite wanting to, but clearly there is no movement forward on this. The finetuning of diplomacy seems to be missing, with pedantics driven by Doval and followed by Jaishankar seeming to take over the sophistication associated with the Ministry of External Affairs.

Perhaps the most telling comment comes from New Delhi’s policy with the neighbourhood. Pakistan and Indian relations have followed a completely bizarre course, starting with the ‘reaching out’ when as South Asian leaders were invited for PM Modi’s swearing in, and moving through a flip flop flip course that has certainly not helped India in any substantive manner. From no talks, to a comprehensive dialogue, to again no talks, to a terror attack on Pathankot, to strong warnings, to a tame approval of the visit of a Pakistan investigating team to the Air Force base, to a face off with China over its ‘technical hold’ on UN sanctions against Azhar, to a possible meeting with the Pakistan foreign secretary currently visiting Delhi.

Jammu and Kashmir from being ‘off’ the table is firmly back on, in India Pakistan relations. PM Modi came in for considerable criticism for allowing the Pakistan JIT team into the Air Force Base along with an ISI official, particularly after the assertions from the government that it would not tolerate terrorism, and Defence Minister Parrikar’s insistence that the Pakistanis will not be given access to the Air Force base at Pathankot.

The government seems to be torn with ‘teach them a lesson’ approach and a ‘we must talk’ policy with two years again earning it flak from both the ‘war ’lobbyists and the peaceniks as it were. As diplomats point out, there is no policy on Pakistan, it is knee jerk, depending on the moment. This again is being laid at Dovals door, as most spoken to credit Jaishankar with “more diplomatic sense” than to allow a policy that wavers from one extreme to the other at all times. Doval, it might be recalled, has been an undercover operative in Pakistan and has, like many others, favoured an uncompromising hard approach to dealing with the neighbour. The problem probably arises from the realisation, and the pressure, from the western block that remains determined not to allow a conflict between the two. But again the policy seems to be skirting around this bottom line, even as it adheres to the pressure at the same time in an almost schizophrenic manner.

Nepal has moved from being a friend to a foe. Clearly seen as the backyard by the ruling dispensation, India’s decision ---placed of course at the Madhesi’s door---to block essential goods from going into Nepal has created a strong anti-India wave in the Himalayan neighbour that according to recent reports has not subsided. In Nepals assessment PM Modi was irked by its refusal to give him permission to hold mega-meetings inside Nepal in the run up to the Saarc summit, and distribute bicycles to locals there. In a last minute response, Jaishankar and Doval both rushed to Kathmandu later to oppose the Nepalese Constitution on the grounds that it did not address Madhesis’ concerns. As experts pointed out then, “what was the need for both to go, the foreign secretary was sufficient.” Nepal refused to entertain this and as Nepalese sources had told The Citizen at the time, “this was too last minute to even consider, if India was so interested they should have requested us long before, we might have been able to address the concerns.” This led to the blockade, and from then on relations deteriorated at alarming speed.

China has moved into Nepal faster than expected perhaps, with Prime Minister K.P.Oli visiting Beijing. Sources said that a decision had been taken in Kathmandu to reduce dependencies on New Delhi, although the government was aware that this would take time. Just a few days ago Oli laid the foundation stone for a new airport being built with Chinese assistance with all political leaders attending, in a red carpet welcome for the Chinese. Nepal is looking to waive visas for China, while India is now stamping passports for visits to Nepal, running completely contrary to the open border policy between the two countries. As commentators have been writing, the government has succeeded in pushing Nepal towards China, a feat that many would have considered impossible not so long ago.

A month or so after their visit to Nepal both Doval and Jaishankar rushed to Myanmar, this time after the Indian Army’s surgical operation to hide at militants hideouts in the forests alongside the border with Myanmar. This was again a tit for tat operation, in retaliation to a terror attack on Indian soil where 18 Indian army soldiers had been killed in Manipur, and seen as the outcome of the BJP government-Doval policy. The matter was hushed up to a point where many even questioned the claim of actually hitting existing militant camps across the border, but reports suggested anger in Myanmar about an operation of which advance warning was not given.

The ‘hit them hard’ policy being adopted for all adversarial positions is totally bereft of diplomatic finesse. This along with the ‘dramatic gestures’ policy is seen as PMO and not MEA driven, with Jaishankar losing ground to his more assertive and powerful senior, Ajit Doval.