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TIME FOR SOME HARD BARGAINING

As the commerce minister, Arun Jaitley, and his team renounce the obvious attractions of Cancun and hunker down, instead, in this Mecca of Mexican tourism to negotiate a way out of the symptomatic impasse in global trade, parallels are being drawn to the final weeks of negotiations in Geneva which led to the adoption of the comprehensive test ban treaty against nuclear tests in 1996.

New Delhi’s stature in the World Trade Organization and its role in the WTO’s fifth ministerial conference opening in Cancun today are totally out of proportion with India’s minor share of a mere 0.8 per cent of world trade.

Two years ago, India almost single-handedly held up the final declaration of the WTO’s fourth ministerial conference at Doha, thereby blocking a free-for-all, at the instance of rich nations, over investment, transparency in government procurement, competition and trade facilitation — the “Singapore issues”, so-called because they were born out of the WTO’s first ministerial meeting, held in the city-state in 1996.

Since decisions in the WTO are taken by consensus and not by formal vote, India’s objections had to be taken note of and addressed. The Doha meeting was salvaged after Murasoli Maran, then commerce minister, accepted a clarification by the chairman of the fourth ministerial conference that commencement of negotiations on the “Singapore issues” and rules for their implementation would depend on a “decision to be taken by explicit consensus” at Cancun.

India’s attitude at Doha has been compared uncharitably to Maran’s behaviour elsewhere, when he threw himself in the path of the Chennai police officers who made the proverbial midnight knock on the doors of his leader, M. Karunanidhi. Maran’s encounter with J. Jayalalithaa’s police had very unfortunate consequences for the then commerce minister — his health suffered and the minister has been unable to function, it is said, largely from the fallout of that strenuous incident.

India, on the other hand, did not suffer the same fate either within the WTO or in the arena of international trade as a result of what its chief representative did in Doha. On the contrary, the country is going into the Cancun deliberations with greater confidence and an increased ability to handle the complexities of what it is up against in the current ministerial meeting.

The decision in 1996 to stay out of the nuclear test ban treaty was, in some respects, a desperate act. Because the government of that time had closed the options in Geneva, and yet, did not have the backbone to follow up its rejection of CTBT with the logical corollary of nuclear tests, it brought New Delhi to a cul de sac. But once the successor administration led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India as a nuclear power, there was a whole new dynamic to the proliferation question and India was well on the road to claiming its place under the sun.

Cancun offers India a rare opportunity to repeat its experience on the nuclear question in the area of trade. Traditionally, at fora such as the WTO; its predecessor, the general agreement on tariffs and trade; or the United Nations industrial development organization, New Delhi has taken the lead in championing Third World causes.

It has now become fashionable in New Delhi to look back on such initiatives with contempt. The rationale behind India’s leadership role in the Third World, it is sadly forgotten, was, more often than not, protection of national interest, not altruism or any compulsive desire to do good to others, although the thought may have crossed the minds of leaders like Indira Gandhi. It was not the sole — or even primary — motivation behind those policies.

In these efforts to protect national interest, India believed that there was strength in numbers — just as George W. Bush believes that there is strength in the overwhelming use of military force. Never mind the unpleasant reality that Iraq is proving him wrong, just as Vietnam proved another generation of American leaders wrong.

The strength in numbers theory was vindicated in Doha two years ago. Because several like-minded countries were collectively projecting positions they shared with India right from the start of the meeting, those positions were taken note of. It is an irony that the outcome of Doha, which has now come to be known as the “Doha development agenda”, really never had any substantial development component to start with.

Because India and like-minded countries focussed on issues such as Third World debt, transfer of technology, capacity-building and the travails of small economies, the content of Doha’s outcome changed substantially. Indians and others who were enlightened by the way business was transacted at that ministerial meeting argue that if the dissenters did not stand together at the beginning, their agenda would have been dismissed altogether.

This is important in view of the criticism that while many developing countries were cajoled or lured into abandoning their positions, India was left high and dry in the end. While it is true that India was steadfast till the very end in Doha and that it was virtually alone in defending a collective Third World position as the conference wore on, it is still an argument in support of gathering like-minded countries.

The expectation is that Cancun will mark a turning point in how India deals with issues of business just as the nuclear tests were landmarks in New Delhi’s quest for great power status. For more than half a century, India has been content to defend its national interest at platforms similar to the WTO.

The demands of globalization and a greater exposure to the ways of the post-colonial, post-socialist order have ushered in the imperatives of going beyond such defence and advancing national interests instead. To that extent, Jaitley has the persona of a new genre of Indian negotiators.

Already expectations are high in Cancun about how the commerce minister will go about advancing the positions of one of the most outspoken governments in the WTO system and how differently he will conduct himself from Maran, as a negotiator. It is already being suggested that Jaitley; the American trade representative, Robert Zoellick; the European trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy; and the foreign minister of Brazil, India’s main co-dissident, Celso Amorim, should put their heads together to impose some rule of law within the WTO to start with.

For the world’s most important trade organization, with 145 members and another 31 member governments, in addition to seven international organization observers such as the UN, it is an amazing flaw that it is not governed by rules of business.

In the run up to the Cancun meeting, when non-governmental organizations were invited to Geneva to discuss their views on various issues, several NGOs bitterly complained that even Boy Scouts conducted their sessions with more order than the WTO. Surprisingly, the response of the WTO director-general, Supachai Panitchpakdi, to this complaint was that rules of business were not possible in the WTO because its members could not agree on what the rules should be. It was an eye-opener that at the Doha meeting, the draft ministerial declaration and the draft ministerial decisions prepared by the organization’s head had to be introduced at the formal opening session of the conference because the WTO’s leadership was at a loss to do it in any other way.

Such an action, of course, prevented dissenters from raising objections to both documents since protocol prohibits interventions by member states at ceremonial openings. Because there are no acceptable laws governing the conduct of WTO meetings, the first two days at Cancun are expected to be taken up largely by procedural matters. It is here that Jaitley’s legal acumen may be sought by those who want to introduce greater order in the conduct of the trade organization’s affairs. This may mean that a lot of the hard bargaining, the quid pro quos and the inevitable gives and takes may be compressed into the last 48 hours.

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