External affairs minister S. Jaishankar and Congress MP Rahul Gandhi had an animated debate on Indian foreign policy against the backdrop of the border standoff with China during a routine meeting of a parliamentary consultative committee on Saturday, according to people familiar with the matter.
As the minister concluded an hour-long presentation, the Congress leader said it appeared to be a “laundry list” rather than a concerted strategy to deal with the Chinese threat — a view echoed by his party colleague Shashi Tharoor, who held the charge of junior foreign minister during the UPA era. Jaishankar responded by saying a simplistic approach could not be adopted in a multipolar world and, equally significantly, a multipolar continent too, according to the people cited above.
“Do you have a clear strategy in mind that could be summarised in three sentences?’’ Gandhi was said to have asked Jaishankar. “The Chinese strategy is to move from the maritime to the terrestrial, to change the old Silk Road to a land route linking China to Europe and through the CPEC to the Gulf and bypass the old centrality of India, making us irrelevant. What will India do to counter it?’’
To Gandhi’s concern that China was increasingly turning the world bipolar, the minister said: “We cannot write off Russia, and Japan is a rising power too. We will do our best so that the world is multipolar; we should think of a multipolar continent too.’’
Jaishankar said the debate with Gandhi could continue endlessly as both had counterpoints.
As the Congress MPs defended the successive UPA regimes in the context of foreign policy, the minister said connectivity with neighbours had improved dramatically over the past six years. He said ties with the Gulf countries, for instance, were limited to the Indian community and energy-related transactions during the UPA years but acquired a deeper character under the Modi government, which, among other things, resulted in better treatment of the Indian diaspora during the pandemic.
Jaishankar said Rs.4,600 crore was spent annually on the Chinese border till 2016 but the figure was ramped up to Rs.11,800 crore since then. Past neglect of border infrastructure was part of the current problem, he said.
On the Congress MPs’ objection that minutes of the meetings of the consultative committee were not being made available by the government, the ministry said the decision to adopt this practice was taken by the then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee in 2008.
After the sharp exchanges, the meeting concluded on a cordial note, with Congress MPs Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor thanking the external affairs ministry for arranging safe evacuation of Indians stranded abroad during the pandemic.