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Take a bow,India

June 05, 2003

Two separate events made me swell with pride over the past week.

One, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's eight day trip to Germany, Russia and France. Particularly the last two nations. 

And two, India's decision to pre-pay Rs 7,490 crores worth of external debt over this fiscal year and the next.  

What was so special about Vajpayee's trip to St Petersburg, Russia, for the city's tercentenary celebrations, and Evian, France, for the G-8 summit?

The very fact that he was invited to both (no other leader from the subcontinent was invited to either).   

Critics might point out that Russia has always had a special relationship with India, and that Vajpayee was invited to attend the G-8 summit not as a potential member, but as a developing nation, along with a host of leaders from G-77, NAM, and some African states.

Yes, Russia and India do share a special relationship.

'We are cooperating in 'most sensitive' areas, leave alone the economic cooperation. Our military-technical cooperation, our partnership in space exploration is actively developing,' Russian President Vladimir Putin told Vajpayee in St Petersburg.  'Just now, our seamen conducted joint exercises, for the first time in history. They went off at very high level.' 

At the G-8 summit in Evian, French President Jacques Chirac bucked protocol by receiving Vajpayee as he alighted from his vehicle, instead of the venue where he received other leaders, including US President George Bush. 

Apart from Bush, other leaders at the summit included Chirac, Britain's Tony Blair, Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, Japan's Junichiro Koizumi, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Canada's Jean Chrétien and Putin.

The special invitees were Algeria, Brazil, China, Nigeria, Malaysia, Morocco, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa and India.

The fact that India was invited indicates that there has been a shift in Western perceptions that regardless of the forum, all India could ever talk about was Pakistan, Pakistan and Pakistan. The fact that India was invited indicates that the government's almost desperate attempts to change this perception have finally borne fruit. 

As for the pre-payments of external debts, they reflect the government's confidence in the Indian economy, and the fact it has a staggering $80 billion in foreign exchange reserves.

(For the record -- and at the risk of being described as Pakistan-centric -- Pakistan has about $10 billion, mostly acquired recently as payment for the use of its military facilities by US troops engaged in the war in Afghanistan.)

In February, India prepaid currency loans of around $3 billion due to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. 

Rs 7,490 crores may not seem like such a large percentage of the Rs 66,316 crores India owes 20 nations as of the first quarter of 2003. But this prepayment removes 15 nations from that list of 20, simply because most of the debt -- about Rs 58,825 crores -- is owed to four of the other five nations: US, France, Japan and Germany.

From now, India will actually accept aid only from a few select states: The European Community, US, Japan, UK, Germany and the Russian Federation. It will also reject 'tied aid,' or aid which is given for specific imports from the donor nation.

According to the finance ministry, 'the decision to discontinue receiving aid from certain bilateral partners with smaller assistance packages has been taken so that their resources can be transferred to other developing countries in greater need of Official Development Assistance.' 

'Other developing countries in greater need..' Proud words indeed.

In fact, the first six months of the year have seen some rather significant events in India's foreign policy.

In January, there was the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, aimed at gathering the economic, moral, and political support of the huge Indian Diaspora. 

Days later came the visit to India by Iranian President Syed Mohammad Khatami. Iran is one of three 'axis of evil' states named by Bush. (The others were Iraq and North Korea)

While firmly rejecting Iran's proposal for a gas pipeline which would connect the two nations over Pakistan, India signed a significant strategic alliance with Tehran, much to Pakistan's discomfiture.  

(Apart from this, India, Iran and Russia are the initial signatories to what is know as the North South Corridor treaty, perhaps the cheapest and fastest route from the Indian Ocean to northern Europe. Essentially, this involves a road-rail link from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to the Caspian Sea ports and beyond. Indian engineers are said to be helping develop part of this road link, which passes closes to Iran's border with Pakistan.)

In February, our outspoken Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal visited Washington and delivered his  'blow hot, blow cold'  speech, which made clear that India had its own distinct views on various issues, and was not unduly bothered if they differed from that of the US.   

This was reflected during the US-led war on Iraq, when the two sides amicably agreed to disagree.   

In March, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha told the BBC's Asia Today that Washington's advice to restart a dialogue with Pakistan was 'as gratuitous and misplaced' as New Delhi asking US to open dialogue with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Did all this sour relations between the two nations? No.  

In fact, a UPI report dated May 29 spoke of American interests in the 'prospects for a new security system for Asian-Pacific republics, a kind of Asian NATO, anchored by the United States and India.'

In April, Vajpayee offered his hand of friendship to Pakistan once again, but on his terms. And those terms were the same as before: stop supporting cross border infiltration, shut down terrorist camps.  But as a confidence building gesture, India agreed to restart full diplomatic relations, air, road and rail links.

Also in April, Beijing baiter and Defence Minister George Fernandes visited China as a precursor to a visit by Vajpayee now slated for June 22. While no pathbreaking accords are expected to be signed at the time, the visit is certainly likely to further improve the atmosphere tainted after India's nuclear tests in 1998.

A nuclear power. A burgeoning economy, strong enough to actually reject aid. The political confidence to differ with and talk to the world's sole superpower as an equal, rather than as a client state. And the courage and conviction to chart and carve its own route. 

This is an India no one could have dreamt of a decade ago.


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Ramananda Sengupta

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