From rejecting the mercy petition of Afzal Guru to allegedly disapproving of the suggestion to send former West Bengal governor Gopal Gandhi as India’s next ambassador to Myanmar, President Pranab Mukherjee continues to assert himself as a notable player in Delhi’s political parlour.
It is also clear now why the ministries of external affairs and commerce and the Prime Minister’s Office decided that the meeting of the Saarc chambers of commerce as well as a visit by a Pakistani parliamentary delegation could not be take place in Delhi in February. Certainly, the presence of a Pakistani delegation on Indian soil, soon after the execution of Afzal Guru, would not be the best public relations exercise for India.
As for the relationship with Pakistan at this juncture -- after all Guru was executed for his role in the Parliament attacks on December 2001, allegedly carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists sponsored by Pakistan, which led to the greatest mobilisation of India’s armed forces on the western border with Pakistan -- India’s wait-and-watch mode will continue.
With elections going to take place in Pakistan in the next few months and Islamabad unable to make any progress on investigating the Mumbai attacks, the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Pakistan seems unlikely in the near future.
In this all-political season, action on the neighbourhood seems to have picked up. Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai is in Dhaka these days to prepare for the visit of Foreign minister Salman Khurshid, who in turn will anticipate Pranab Mukherjee’s first presidential visit to Bangladesh.
Can the impending Budget session of Parliament see the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh that has been hanging fire since September 2011? It is likely that the United Progressive Alliance will push for this ratification so that it is done before the VVIP visit to Bangladesh.
The President’s willingness to push the diplomatic envelope, including on Myanmar, also means that India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Gautam Mukhopadhyay will most likely be named as India’s newest envoy to that country soon.
It is also believed that the Myanmarese President Thein Sein is preparing for a visit to India sometime in March, an indication of Myanmar’s enhanced willingness to engage with India. China remains Myanmar’s greatest partner, of course, with the oil and gas pipelines that it is building from the Myanmarese Rakhine coast to Kunming in southern China is likely to be ready in a few months from now.
Mukhopadyay’s impending departure from Afghanistan -- not before arranging the visit of more than 80 Afghan Senators to the Lok Sabha for parliamentary acclimatisation this week -- is part of a personnel rejig in India’s neighbourhood. Amar Sinha, currently in the ministry of commerce, could be going to Kabul, T C A Raghavan, currently high commissioner in Singapore, will likely replace Sharad Sabharwal in Pakistan, while Rajiv Shahare will replace D M Mulay in the Maldives.
In fact, the Maldives surprisingly seems very much at the centre of New Delhi’s attention, not only because elections will be held in that island nation in August-September this year, but because Delhi’s top authorities are said to be once again engaging with the former President Mohamed Nasheed.
The forced exit of the Indian infrastructure company GMR by Mohamed Waheed, the man who ousted Nasheed in a coup exactly a year ago and named himself President, has forced Delhi to rethink its own badly failed strategy in the Maldives that is strategically located near the US base Diego Garcia, and has been the subject of intensive Chinese interest.
It is said that Chinese businessmen are interested in purchasing a string of Maldivian islands to set up tourist resorts and that Waheed could give them permission to do so.
It is also believed that Delhi may be coming around to the belief that the ousting of Nasheed, the first democratically elected President of the Maldives, last year was “really a coup”.
The intelligence chief of the Maldivian National Defence Forces recently came out and said so and this could have contributed to a change in heart in Delhi. Certainly, if Nasheed wins the forthcoming elections, Delhi would like to keep a line open with him.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh certainly has a full agenda on hand, most important of which will be to deal with the fallout of the Afzal Guru execution. It might be useful to remember that the Parliament attacks of December 2001 led to ‘Operation Parakram’, which in turn led to the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee travelling to Srinagar on April 18, 2003, to offer talks with Kashmiri separatists.
Will these Kashmiri separatists, some of whom have recently returned from Pakistan where they also met hardline elements like Salahuddin, respond to such an offer if it is made?