Saturday 20 October 2012

India misses Kuwait opportunity (PO)

By M D Nalapat

In 1994, Prime Minister Pamulaparthy Venkata Narasimha Rao implemented India’s “Look East” policy. Although Jawaharlal Nehru had given many speeches on Asia,and had joined hands with President Achmed Soekarno of Indonesia to hold the Bandung Afro-Asian Summit in 1955,the focus of his successor Indira Gandhi was on Moscow, which is why India disdained efforts by the newly-formed ASEAN to get associated with the bloc in 1966.Even during Nehru’s time, most of the attention was paid to countries which were then closer to Moscow than to Washington, such as China, rather than to Japan, South Korea and Singapore, countries that had launched on a high-growth trajectory. So far as the countries which now comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council were concerned, very little was done to leverage the immense goodwill for India in this region. Gradually, the people of the GCC began turning away from India, a country that had been a second home to their grandfathers and fathers, and with which they had earlier been very familiar.

Concentrating as they did on Europe, the USSR, China and the US, successive regimes in Delhi neglected to nourish India-GCC ties, which remained strong only because of the residual goodwill of the region towards the subcontinent. Manmohan Singh was the Union Minister of 
Finance while Rao was the PM. However, he seems to have learnt very few lessons in foreign policy from a boss who brought economic reform to India. During October 15-17,the State of Kuwait hosted the first Summit of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, a group of 32 Asian countries that includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahran, the UAE, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and since 2012,Afghanistan. No fewer than 22 Heads of Government and Heads of State attended the Summit, making it a major international event.

Only two countries made the mistake of sending low-level delegations, China and India, the latter country being represented by a junior minister who stopped over in Kuwait for two days en route from New York. The Prime Minister of Pakistan was 
present, as were the Presidents of Sri Lanka and Bangla Desh. Although the Kuwaitis had invited Vice-President Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Singh and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, none of the three showed up. Indeed, had the articulate and charming Vice-President of India, former diplomat Hamid Ansari, showed up, it would have made a world of difference to the country’s image among the participants.

Although China has extensive economic stakes in the GCC, the links binding India to the region are far greater. About six million citizens work in the GCC and send home a substantial amount of 
foreign exchange, which helps in making the purchase of petroproducts from the region. Despite this, the invite from Kuwait for the first-ever ACD Summit was ignored by the External Affairs Ministry, whose bosses Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s have a fixation with the countries forming NATO. The two visit NATO capitals frequently, but thus far, have devoted very little time in touring the GCC. The non-participation by India at the needed level has harmed India’s interests but is explainable in a context where the government follows a unipolar foreign policy just when the world has become visibly multipolar. This capacity - of missing the right bus – is endemic in Indian foreign policy.

When the country needed to be close to fast-growing Asian 
economies, it was aloof from them. When it needed to be a balancer between the US and China, it has followed a policy of “stealth alignment” with NATO. Where it needs to focus on Asia, especially the capital-rich GCC, the concentration of attention is on giving concessions to the very NATO-based financial entities that have caused the 2008 financial crash. Although Manmohan Singh has no time to attend the ACD Summit, he finds time to meet with high-level delegations from financial enterprises that are making billions of dollars in India through speculation. Not just him, but the Reserve Bank of India too is very partial to such entities. Clearly, those at the top in India are still suffused with reverence for their former colonial masters.

Kuwait has the right credentials to serve as the Headquarters of the ACD Secretariat. It is time that major international institutions established HQs in the GCC, and Kuwait is a country that has good relations across the board: north, south, east and west. The reason for this is the fact that there is no discrimination in the country against people of different sects and faiths. The Kuwaiti side has presented an ambitious agenda for uniting Asian countries behind a non-divisive agenda that has a focus on development,culture and education,and if this be realised,it would mark a huge step forwards in intra-Asia cooperation. It is therefore no surprise that NATO-based media such as CNN and BBC have largely ignored the Kuwait Summit.

The Kuwait Summit indicates that the GCC has launched its own Look East policy.That the states within it understand that placing all their trust in NATO-based institutions may lead in the future to losses even greater than the $1.3 trillion the region lost during the 2008 crash. That it is Asian countries such as India,China,South Korea and Japan that will be the biggest purchasers of petroproducts,and who can partner with the GCC to craft educational models that reflect both traditional values as well as the need for skills relevant in a globalised world.

The Kuwait initiative has potential to be a game changer for the region,in that it could unlock the door towards the forms of unity in Asia that have been witnessed in Europe during 1955-75. Hopefully,Manmohan Singh will ensure that India hops on to the bus,by getting energetically involved in the ACD, rather than miss an opportunity for closer ties with the GCC,the way he did in Kuwait by staying away from the October 15-17 Summit.

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