Mirages and oases

As 2011 ends, the world is different from what the US envisaged in 2001. Coincidently, former US President George W. Bush arrived in Mumbai on a private visit this week, as did former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s memoir in Indian bookshops as intense global financial and political churning persists, with the outcomes uncertain.
The 2008 financial/banking crisis has been succeeded by the euro-zone imbroglio. Whether the response to the Greek debt will contain the contagion or whether it will spread to Italy, Portugal etc is moot. Similarly the brutal elimination of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the incoherent mumblings of a caged former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the defiance of the Syrian government, the immolations of Buddhist monks and nuns in China, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the US and the Anna Hazare tempest for probity in public life in India are all events awaiting outcomes. This is not how it was meant to be. Ms Rice sketches it out in her book No Higher Honour, providing few answers to emerging riddles.
Dragged into the maelstrom is a reluctant India — sitting forlornly in the UN Security Council voting out of habit rather than conviction — invited to the rich man’s G-20 club. But, led by a government with diminishing moral authority at home and an economist Prime Minister at sea over inflation and economic slowdown, it is no longer the cynosure of attention. The agendas have shifted, with the G-20 unable to decide who will contribute to the European Financial Stability Facility, which has 440 billion euros, against the looming debt of Italy itself amounting to 1.9 trillion euros and the Greeks ahead in the queue.
Prime Ministers in political distress at home sometimes seek solace abroad. Rajiv Gandhi, cornered over the Bofors scandal, sent an expeditionary force to Sri Lanka in 1987. Since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s New York sojourn for the UN General Assembly, diplomatic activity has been frenetic. In November alone he was in Cannes for the G-20 (November 3-4), touched India, and is now in the Maldives for the Saarc Summit (November 9-10). He will then head to Bali for the East Asia Summit (14-19), a grouping of 10 Asean nations plus three from East Asia — Japan, China and Republic of Korea besides India, Australia and New Zealand as well as US and Russia.
A nation’s foreign policy is tested primarily in its neighbourhood.
India scored some notable gains during this period. An exception being Dr Singh’s visit to Bangladesh, where domestic politics undercut foreign policy objectives. Mamata Banerjee, the mercurial chief minister of West Bengal, could not have been expected to endorse a 50-50 sharing of the Teesta river waters without a proper study of the dry and wet season discharge. When cornered she chose to embarrass the Union government. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has since her election in December 2008 progressively marginalised the forces of radical Islam, shut down sanctuaries for Indian militants and sought broader engagement with India. The enclaves issue has been addressed positively and India should countenance even unilateral concessions to allay fears of Indian hegemony and pave the path for regional integration, critical to Saarc’s success.
The visits of the Presidents of Vietnam and Burma in close proximity were significant. President Thein Sein of Burma has unleashed political reform at home, cancelled a China-funded megadam at Myitsone in Kachin state, apparently over concerns of the local population. It is also being viewed as a balancing of relations with India and China. Thant Myint-U’s book on Burma, Where China Meets India, traces the changing geography of the region.
While for centuries China and India traded via Central Asia or over the oceans, now connectivity is emerging through Burma, a revival of the Second World War route to Kunming. As democratic forces are unshackled in Burma, more space opens for India.
President Troung Tan Sang of Vietnam, visiting in the 40th year of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties, further cemented emerging strategic links. China is agitated over the allotment of oil and gas prospecting rights to OVL by Vietnam in waters China claims historically. Bilateral trade has grown at over 20 per cent per annum between 2001-2006, crossing $1 billion. During a recent visit to Beijing, a Chinese think tank could not decipher why India has stepped into their bilateral dispute with Vietnam. When asked why they were present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a disputed territory as per UNSC resolutions, the response was a bland stare.
This will be the Asian story as India and China compete for strategic space and jostle for influence, often on each other’s periphery.
Of even greater significance was the visit of Baburam Bhattarai, Prime Minister of Nepal, who belongs to the moderate faction of UCPN(M), the Maoists’ party. Historically Nepal has coped with its buffer status by playing first the Chinese and Tibetans against each other (1775-1845), then the Chinese against the British colonial power, followed by cutting a deal with the British and aiding them in putting down the 1857 Uprising. Post-1947, India followed the “middle way”, even abandoning the Nepali National Congress to prop up King Tribhuvan. Mr Bhattarai seems to have finally struck a deal and hopefully the nation can move on to adopting a Constitution and inducting the Maoist cadres into a paramilitary force. India has pledged a $250 million line of credit. Perhaps the Double Taxation Treaty and the Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement will restore the confidence of Indian investors and restart investment flow to Nepal.
Pakistan and Afghanistan would remain the missing riddles in comprehensive cooperation in the Saarc region. Pakistan announcing in-principle approval for “most favoured nation” treatment for India is welcome. Whether it is another mirage, or indeed the oasis, only time will tell. The government needs to regroup at home. An ailing Sonia Gandhi, crucial state elections and a reluctant heir apparent augur badly for the Congress.
Astrologers will point out that Saturn moves into exaltation in Libra (Tula) in a week’s time and stays there for two and a half years. Last time it was there 30 years ago. India then lost Indira Gandhi and saw a young Rajiv handed the mandate of the century. Will we play it better this time?

The writer is a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs

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