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The Rediff Interview/Foreign Secretary Shashank

March 30, 2004

New trade agreements signed with Latin America, South East Asia and Africa will strengthen India's domestic industries while enabling Indian businessmen to compete more effectively in the international market, believes Foreign Secretary Shashank. In a exclusive two-hour interview with Senior Editor Shyam Bhatia, Shashank also said the growing clout of the Indian-American community had greatly influenced the improving strategic relationship between New Delhi and Washington.  

A part of this interview was first published in India Abroad, the largest circulated newspaper for the Indian-American community, which is owned by 

Has the US played an encouraging role in the India-Pakistan peace process ?

Basically, with India-Pakistan the peace process is a bilateral peace process. But definitely all other countries and especially the United States -- they have been sharing their thoughts with India and Pakistan. To the extent they can convey our concerns to Pakistan and Pakistan's concerns to us, that is all right. We are not against countries talking to us on the issue. But we don't see a third party role, either as an honest broker or mediator, or any such thing.

You don't object to the US playing a supportive role?

We have consultations with countries all over the world. I am sure they also have consultations with countries in the South Asian region. So we can always exchange views on different international relations.

How do you explain the dramatic improvements in the bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Washington?

The role played by the Indian expatriate community in the US acted as the lever for this change of perception about India. When we found that 40 percent of IT engineers had an Indian background or were Indians, there was a feeling that something was going on. We saw President Clinton taking interest in promoting India-US relations, he also visited India. Now the US government has agreed to go in for a strategic partnership with us, and the strategic partnership document was signed in November 2001 between President Bush and Prime Minister Vajpayee. In January 2004, the two leaders pledged to implement the strategic partnership at the highest level.

What is meant by strategic partnership?

Instead of talking only about bilateral issues or issues relating to the region, we are now discussing global issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. We are having joint naval and air exercises. Besides participating in many seminars on international strategic aspects, we organised an ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) seminar on maritime strategies. We have also been discussing ways to use dual use items for peaceful purposes in the fields of nuclear, space research and high technology, and have agreed to explore the possibility of an expanded dialogue on missile defence.

How have you responded to US hopes that India could play a role in Iraq?  

In India there was a resolution of Parliament which had taken into account the sentiments of the Indian people and the sentiments of the Iraqi people, who have traditionally been very close to each other. Therefore, we could not have a situation where India could be perceived by the Iraqis as coming along with the Allied powers. On the other hand, if we are seen as part of the process whereby the Iraqis get back their own governance and there is a clear-cut road map involving the United Nations, it will become much easier for India to play a role. We have already offered $30 million in aid and are working with the United Nations and the world community in Iraq.

Do you expect US support for India's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council?

UN reforms have been talked about for some time, and the Americans were among the first to have sought such reforms. Of course, they were seeking it from the point of view of making the UN more effective and more cost effective. They are in favour of it, but perhaps what one cannot see right now is the role of the UN in world developments as they are happening very rapidly. The US has not made an official statement, but several political leaders and officials have endorsed UN reforms and getting India as one of the permanent members of the expanded or reformed UN Security Council.

Do the Americans realise just how tough issues like Kashmir can be for Indian policy makers?

Yes, while they appreciate the bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan, they don't have any intention to get involved or come up with any new solutions or  proposals. And they would like to leave it to India and Pakistan to work it  out. We have to put all the feelings of hatred, violence and terrorism behind us, and then we can move towards the path of peace and security and economic  co-operation and economic development. This is the new track on which we have been moving. The joint press statement issued by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf January 6 (after the SAARC summit) and the documents that have been signed at SAARC to move towards a free trade area, including Pakistan and India -- SAFTA --these are  the areas where we feel we can work together. 

Are you worried about the evidence of a US backlash against outsourcing?

We do understand to some extent that when jobs are lost in any  country in any sector, there would be some disquiet. There would be some grievance so the media would write about it, perhaps political leaders would be influenced by the feelings of their constituents. The Americans and others have been telling us how we should open up our markets in order to achieve a multilateral type of trading system in the WTO, but when it comes to the BPOs (business process outsourcing), we find  that suddenly because of the difficulties of employment coming up, some American states have not been able to explain the issues to the people.

Some European countries have been able to do it much more effectively. For example, the British government does not see a threat if some of their jobs go to India because Indian companies are also creating jobs in the UK. So one has to balance these two aspects. It still is possible to go in for a win-win partnership and that's what we are trying to work out with the American government. 

US Trade Representative Robert B Zoellick was in India recently and our Commerce Minister Mr Arun Jaitley spoke to him quite frankly on this subject. There a quite a few stories about how when an IT company goes to a bank seeking funds, the first question the bank asks is how many Indians do they have in their employment. Only then do they release venture capital for new initiatives.

When is the dual nationality legislation likely to be implemented?

The Dual Nationality Bill should soon be an Act, since there is support for it among the political parties in India. I really see it likely to be put into practice this summer. Bilateral dialogue will have to start once the Bill is passed.

How will this benefit NRIs?

It is really in the mind more than in the pocket. It will give a feeling that, yes, they are as much a part of Indian cultural,  civilisational heritage as they are of their country of adoption and they can come to India whenever they feel like it without first going to an Indian embassy or consulate as an intermediary to give them a visa. That's the kind of feeling which is very important.

As far as the pocket is concerned, there, of course, we had already given various facilities as part of our PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card which was in a way giving a long term visa and also giving facilities for investments in India, stock markets, purchase of properties -- things like that. This process will be carried further with dual nationality.

What will not happen is that the political rights will not be given. That in any case is the usual system of countries where dual nationality exists.

Some NRIs think dual nationality might in some way dilute their status in the countries where they live.

We don't think this should happen because, firstly, we have only selected those countries where there are enabling provisions for the existence of dual nationality. Secondly, we propose to enter into a bilateral dialogue with the countries concerned to see that this will not bring about any kind of negative fallout for people of Indian origin. Only if that happens will we extend it to people in specific countries.

What happens if a NRI commits a crime and flees to India?  

These things will be sorted out when we hold bilateral discussions with the countries concerned. As you know we are already entering into areas of extradition and mutual legal assistance agreements with the United States and other countries. That should cover all these  legal obligations. 

You have undertaken unprecendented initiatives to improve relations with Africa and Latin America.

This trilateral forum, what we call IBSA (the forum of India, Brazil, South Africa) will discuss how the positions of developing countries' positions can be projected. We are also thinking of strengthening our trilateral and bilateral ties with these three countries as well as Argentine, Uruguay and Paraguay. We have signed a free trade area agreement last year. On January 25 we signed a detailed document specifying the commodities and items which will form part of this free trade agreement. We have also entered into negotiations with South Africa. The idea is to  gradually to extend this to SAARC and South East Asia where we have also free trade area arrangements. 

What we see is the WTO at one level, these regional arrangements with India at another level and we should be able to complement them in order to prepare ourselves for a globalised world, to make our industries and others feel more comfortable. Then they can take competition at home and also compete with others in foreign markets.

Photo:  PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

Image: Uday Kuckian

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