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Bruised egos after Cancun sendoff

New Delhi, Sept. 8: The bargain ing chip that Arun Jaitley carries to the Cancun talks table is cracking under the strains of discord within the government that sent him to hold out in the tug-of-war over trade.

Agriculture minister Rajnath Singh is seething at the commerce minister for having ignored an August 23 cabinet order that asked Jaitley to consult him on issues affecting farmers before he left for the WTO conclave.

“Jaitley never bothered to even call up Singh on these issues,” a top aide to the agriculture minister told The Telegraph. Singh waited for Jaitley to meet him on Saturday, when the last meeting on WTO issues was held.

Why the commerce minister could not get in touch with Singh until he took off for Cancun early Sunday is not known. But what is more evident at this point is that the agriculture minister, who presides over affairs that lie at the heart of many global trade tiffs, hasn’t taken it lying down. Agriculture secretary R. C. Jain is not on the plane to Mexico. Instead, Rajiv Mehta, a junior officer with little say in policy-making, has been asked to accompany Jaitley’s entourage.

Singh has had his reservations over several trade issues on which the cabinet took a stand late last month and on September 6. One of the points agreed in these meetings was that India will seek high tariff cover for sensitive farm products like food grain, oilseed and sugar — items usually costlier at home than abroad.

Jaitley, at Singh’s insistence, was asked to ensure that India is not brow-beaten into accepting steep tariff cuts on the three make-or-break products for farmers.

The cabinet papers, called Mandate For The Official Delegation, say, “attempts should be made to secure as many agricultural commodities as special products to cover sensitive lines (farm goods which are essential to India)”.

The agriculture ministry told the commerce minister it would like rice and wheat protected, since their domestic prices are either higher or tend to be higher than world prices. India is to insist that it will retain high tariffs barriers and agree to modest duty cuts.

“We have told Jaitley that if he agrees to a 10 per cent duty cut on other farm products, it should be 5 per cent on these goods,” an agriculture ministry official said.

The commerce minister has also been told to put as many items as possible under the “special safeguard mechanism”. Doing so allows countries to hike tariff rates if global prices for a commodity fall sharply, or if import volumes go up dramatically. The crops that are likely to be protected by this move are mostly seasonal products, such as coffee and rubber.

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