N-deal Slows Down,
as Pakistan Turmoil Worries India
It was a contentious year for Indian diplomacy as a politically divisive debate threatened to swamp its seminal nuclear deal with the US and the peace process with Pakistan slowed down due to unrest in that country that at the yearend was a grave concern not only to India but to the entire region.
Although domestic political opposition slowed down the process of operationalising the nuclear deal, the most ambitious foreign policy initiative of the Manmohan Singh government, it did not prevent the country from deepening its relations with other leading global players, including the US, Russia, China, Japan and the 27-nation European Union.
The nuclear deal, which aimed at the resumption of global civil nuclear commerce after a hiatus of three decades, consistently dominated headlines through the year and almost threatened to bring down the government with its Leftist allies ominously warning the ruling coalition to either stop the deal mid-way or face early elections.
India's chief opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ironically joined hands with the Left, proclaimed antagonists of "American imperialism", to ensure that the deal dies a natural death.
As politics overshadowed the nuclear debate, it was the context of the India-US strategic relationship and not the text of the 123 India-US civil nuclear agreement finalised in July that came to dominate the discourse.
As the year ends, the government is in the middle of its negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conclude a safeguards pact - a key step before the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group considers changing its guidelines to favour nuclear commerce with New Delhi.
Time is at a premium as the 123 agreement, after the IAEA pact and NSG's change in guidelines, has to be endorsed by the US Congress which is likely to be swamped by election fever by the middle of next year.
Amid leftwing criticism that the country's much-vaunted non-aligned foreign policy was taking a pro-US tilt, Manmohan Singh's visit to Russia in November sought to reaffirm the continuing vitality of traditional ties as the two countries signed a landmark deal on joint unmanned lunar exploration and signed deals to resolve decades-old wrangling over rupee-rouble trade and to build a cutting-edge fighter jet.
The India-EU summit Nov 30 and visits by German chancellor Angela Merkel and the then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to India also reflected India's efforts to deepen ties with all major power centres of the world.
India's immediate neighbourhood, however, was hardly a cause for much cheer. India's peace process with Pakistan languished due to political turmoil and intermittent violence in the neighbouring country with a cautious New Delhi guarded in its responses so as not to upset the existing diplomatic equilibrium.
Despite worldwide criticism of the emergency in Pakistan, which was imposed Nov 3 and lifted Dec 15, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan articulated India's position when he said that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf continues to be "a credible interlocutor" and stressed that New Delhi will continue to do business with whoever is in power in Islamabad.
But the Dec 27 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at an election rally in Rawalpindi threatened to plunge Pakistan further into chaos, raising worries in New Delhi about the country's long-term stability and the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
Building a peaceful periphery, necessary for India's continuing growth and stability, however, remained elusive with Bangladesh, slipping under the rule of an army-backed interim administration, continuing ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and democracy still a distant goal in Nepal.
The ongoing transformation of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) that included Afghanistan as its eight member this year from a yawn-inducing talking shop to an action-oriented regional outfit is one of the success stories of the year, albeit an unstated one.
After much debate, the leaders of the South Asian nations have agreed to create a security network, conclude a mutual legal assistance treaty and energise transport networks to enhance physical and mental connectivity that has the potential to bring new stability and prosperity to the region that is home to one fourth of the world's population.
Although some say that the freezing of the nuclear deal will dent the country's image and credibility, this did not dampen enthusiasm in the world's major capitals from seeking greater engagement with a rising Asian power, with an economy steadily growing at the rate of over eight percent over the last few years.
"We are heading in the right direction. The world's respect for India is growing. American power is declining. India and China are in the ascendant and continue to be key drivers of economic growth," K. Subrahmanyam, a leading strategic expert, told IANS.
Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon summed up this mood of national confidence and optimism in a year-end speech he gave recently. "As a result of 25 years of 6 per cent growth, our reforms since 1991, India is today in a position to engage with the world in an unprecedented manner," he said.
"Our engagement with the global economy is growing rapidly, with trade in goods and services now exceeding US$ 330 billion. Our needs from the world have changed, as has our capability. India can do and consider things that we could not do or consider twenty years ago," he said.
There were moments of triumph, too. The election of India's high commissioner to Britain, Kamalesh Sharma, as the secretary general of the 53-nation Commonwealth at its summit in Kampala in November came as a morale booster, after Shashi Tharoor, the then UN undersecretary general, lost out to South Korea's Ban Ki Moon for the post of the UN Secretary General last year.
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