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Cuba to China, Delhi courts Left’s friends

New York, Sept. 26: The Left parties may not yet have stopped the Manmohan Singh government from operationalising the nuclear deal, but their demand is already prompting a leftward lurch in India’s foreign policy.

On the eve of the opening of the 62nd UN General Assembly here yesterday, external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee met Felipe Perez Roque, the foreign minister of Cuba.

It has been at least 15 years since an Indian Prime Minister or a senior minister met any Cuban official in New York for a detailed review of bilateral relations.

The Americans make it clear that Cubans are unwelcome in New York though they are here for UN work. There were contacts between the Indians and the Cubans last year, but they were of a routine nature and dealt only with Cuba’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

However, this time Indian officials said Mukherjee “sought and received a briefing on the health of President Fidel Castro” from Roque.

The external affairs minister’s initiative in seeking a meeting with his Cuban counterpart is meant to signal that India is not abandoning its traditional friends in favour of Washington and is expected to please the Left.

Officials said India is going ahead with a decision, controversial in the US, to let ONGC Videsh, India’s public sector oil exploration firm, to drill for oil in Cuba’s economic exclusion zone in the Gulf of Mexico. A six-year agreement envisages ONGC Videsh exploring an area of 4,300sqkm in Cuban waters.

US companies are banned from economic activity in Cuba and Florida’s large anti-Castro brigade is lobbying in Washington to punish firms that drill in Cuban waters, alleging environmental damage.

But it is not as if Mukherjee has caved in to the Left on foreign policy. While attention in India has been focused in recent weeks on the activities of Anil Kakodkar, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) General Conference in Vienna, Mukherjee has been quietly keeping the nuclear deal alive in New York.

In the last three days, the Indian external affairs minister met the foreign ministers of seven of the 34 countries represented on the IAEA’s board of governors.

The board has to eventually approve an additional protocol and a safeguards agreement with India before the nuclear deal can be operationalised.

Mukherjee had the most unlikely meetings here with the foreign ministers of countries such as Albania and Algeria only because they are on the IAEA board.

He also met the foreign ministers of Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Canada and China. All these countries are on the board of the UN nuclear watchdog.

Tomorrow, Mukherjee, along with the nuclear scientist and principal scientific adviser to the Prime Minister, R. Chidambaram, will meet US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Washington. They are going there ostensibly for a conference on climate change at the initiative of US President George W. Bush.

Officials said if the Left parties criticised Mukherjee’s meetings here, his defence would be that he was not “negotiating” anything with IAEA board members, but merely “discussing” the situation.

Foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon is, meanwhile, meeting member states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), which has to change its rules for operationalisation of the nuclear deal.

Menon did not accompany Mukherjee last year for the UN General Assembly and it is presumed that his mandate this year is primarily to work on the 45 NSG countries.

Less preoccupation with the nuclear deal has also enabled Mukherjee to concentrate on India’s neighbourhood. He spent his first day here on Sunday meeting China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse, and attending a meeting co-chaired by the UN secretary-general and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

On Monday, Mukherjee, who is the leader of the Indian delegation to the UN General Assembly, met Rangin Spanta, the foreign minister of Afghanistan, and George Yeo, the foreign minister of Singapore.

Yesterday, he met Nepal’s foreign minister, Sahana Pradhan.

Mukherjee also met the foreign ministers of Russia, China and Brazil, as part of an initiative that groups Brazil, Russia, India and China or BRIC.

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