India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh is something of a paradox. He is not a politician by profession, however he has proved to be a political Houdini especially when it comes to asserting his nation’s position internationally.
For example, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, Singh was quick to assert India’s commercial interest in the South China Sea although it doesn’t share a border there. He put China in its place by emphasizing that the spats in the area should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international sea laws.
Singh also appreciated the difficult political situation in Pakistan when he extended an olive branch to Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani on the sidelines of a South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit in the Maldives this week.
His assertiveness with regard to China and willingness to engage Pakistan, which is internally ravaged in many ways, demonstrate Singh’s ability to read the situations outside India perfectly.
China’s revisionist border stance in the South China Sea has invited criticism from countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia to South Korea and Taiwan. Indeed, virtually all nations bordering the Pacific Ocean in East Asia are ready to seek India’s and the United States’ help in containing China’s rise.
In Pakistan, ongoing counterterrorism efforts and America’s presence in Afghanistan have inspired the people to push their leadership for greater cooperation with New Delhi. The prime minister’s astute diplomatic conduct on the eve of both aforementioned conferences buttresses Indo-Pakistani rapprochement.
Singh’s ability to improve India’s standing in the world hasn’t always gone well with India’s middle class although it is doing increasingly well both within and outside of India. It’s for his very willingness to improve relations with neighboring Pakistan that Singh is perceived as a weak leader at home whereas he is respected as a statesman abroad. His international performance has won him personal accolades and an increased respect for India on the world stage.
As President Barack Obama put it during his most recent visit to India, when Manmohan Sigh speaks, the world listens. “India is emerging as a superpower and the world is fully aware of this reality,” he said.
Some of his critics may have already written his political obituary but India’s very nimble prime minister learned an important lesson from President Theodore Roosevelt. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”