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From trade pooper to heroic leader

A K Bhattacharya | September 23, 2003

Murasoli Maran and Prabir Sengupta have worked together on two controversial issues. In 1997, Maran was the industry minister in the United Front government at the Centre. Sengupta was secretary in the department of heavy industries.

A problem arose over who should control the management of Maruti Udyog Limited, a joint venture of the Indian government and Suzuki Motor Company of Japan.

Maran felt that Suzuki should not dispute the Indian government's control over the company's management. Sengupta was his key official as he was also the government-nominated chairman of the board of Maruti Udyog.

It did appear that in his fight with the Japanese automobile giant, he was banking less on the principles of the agreement between the two parties and more on nationalistic fervour.

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Suzuki also did not want to give up the fight easily even though it knew that it was taking on the Government of India.

The dispute was even referred to the International Council of Arbitration. It would have been a long-drawn affair. But the United Front government fell before its normal tenure and the BJP-led coalition that came to power after the general elections had a different perspective on this issue.

It was less jingoistic and a new industry minister, Sikandar Bakht, presided over the resolution of the dispute.

The rest is history.

Maran and Sengupta met again in 2000. This time, Maran was the industries and commerce minister (the two ministries had been merged into one entity by then) and Sengupta was commerce secretary.

Once again, the duo combined well to put up a brave fight at the fourth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation at Doha in 2001.

At Doha, Maran and Sengupta were all alone in their fight against the developed world. They were opposed to the inclusion of the Singapore issues (investment, competition, transparency in government procurement and trade facilitation) in the negotiations for the new round of trade talks.

Maran's argument was that before starting negotiations on new issues, the developed world must focus on the implementation of the unfinished agenda of the Uruguay Round.

Nobody could find fault with his argument, but few gave him a chance to succeed in this battle. Maran was hopeful of many developing countries backing him up at the meeting. But everybody told him that these developing countries would be won over one by one by the US and the European Union, leaving him alone carrying the cross -- and paying the price for defiance.

Such fears came true. Many developing countries that promised support to Maran in the early stages of the talks gave in to pressure from the US and the EU. Maran was left alone and knew that he was fighting a losing battle.

But he did not give in so easily. He agreed to the new agenda for including the Singapore issues for the new Doha round, but only after an "explicit consensus" was obtained from all member countries.

That "victory" of his at Doha went virtually unnoticed. Maran's performance at Doha was known more for the manner in which he "wrecked" the developed world's agenda for free trade.

It is, therefore, ironic that the man who was accused of having spoilt the party at Doha is now being hailed as the developing countries' saviour at Cancun. And the recognition comes from none other than Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley, who led the Indian delegation at the recently concluded fifth ministerial meeting of the WTO at Cancun.

Indeed, if Maran had not forced the inclusion of the condition of an "explicit consensus" for starting the negotiations on Singapore issues, life at Cancun for developing countries could have been more difficult.

All this marks a change in the way our policy makers have begun perceiving the role India should play in the global community. Maran's stand on the Maruti Udyog issue may have had few takers then.

But the belated endorsement of his line at Doha by his successor shows that the government has recognised India's growing strength at such international forums.

Maran anticipated this change and made the first move. Jaitley has built on this initiative. He has built a strong alliance of developing countries, which has stayed intact so far. He has also got the Indian industry's support.

Both before and during the Cancun meeting, the government took industry into confidence while evolving its approach. Not surprisingly, industry associations have now held meetings to support the government's stand at Cancun.

Jaitley has tried even to get the non-governmental organisations and media on the government's side. He himself took the unusual step of addressing an NGO meeting at Cancun. The Indian official delegation shared information with the Indian media without any reservations.

In fact, media briefings for Indian journalists at Cancun were often held in Hindi so that journalists representing news organisations from the US and EU were unable to understand what was really going on inside the developing countries' camp.

According to a member of the Indian delegation at Cancun, Indian journalists present there made no secret of their enthusiasm over the Indian government's tough stand. "Their enthusiasm was reminiscent of the reaction of the Indian journalists covering the Kargil war," a member said.

Cancun was no Kargil. But Maran and Jaitley have ensured that Cancun marked a new phase in the way the government engages the people, the press and industry while fighting for its due in global trade battles.


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