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China to Cuba (yes, via US)

- Remember good old NAM? Krishna and America do
Krishna(left), Castro

Washington, June 10: As the clock ticks on an infusion of fresh blood by the UPA government into India’s relations with the US with its risks of domestic political fallout, the responsibility of asserting India’s autonomy in foreign policy has fallen on external affairs minister S.M. Krishna.

Krishna will arrive in Washington for this week’s annual Indo-US Strategic Dialogue from an eventful visit to China and will leave for Cuba a day after his talks with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

In Havana, Krishna, who cut his political teeth 50 years ago as a Praja Socialist, expects to have a rare meeting with Fidel Castro. It will be a rare meeting because Castro has been extremely choosy about whom he meets since illness and old age forced him to retire from active political life several years ago.

If the meeting between Krishna and Castro takes place — as diplomats in South Block are hoping — it will be similar to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s meeting in 2001 with General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese hero in the successful 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu against French occupiers.

Vajpayee said at that time that he sought the meeting with the legendary Giap because his generation had been “consumed by the cause of Vietnam”.

Krishna’s socialism, on the other hand, has evolved in half a century into a mixture of free market and compassion as demonstrated by what he did to develop Bangalore during his chief ministership of Karnataka, a record that will once again be widely applauded by America’s entrepreneurs during the external affairs minister’s first public event here on Tuesday: his keynote address at the annual summit of the US-India Business Council.

Krishna, who is leading the Indian delegation of five ministers to the Strategic Dialogue, is seeking to focus this year’s talks with the Americans precisely on such compassion.

Just as Krishna steered the first Dialogue here two years ago towards the theme of innovation, his effort this year is to focus on human development.

As part of this effort, women’s empowerment is being integrated into the Strategic Dialogue for the first time after preparatory work in this direction was undertaken by Indian and US officials on the sidelines of the 56th session of the UN Commission on Status of Women in New York three months ago.

Krishna is bringing along the minister of state for women and child development, Krishna Tirath, to give substance to this human development effort.

In order to send an unambiguous message that India is now capable of working with the US and global organisations on development issues, a high-level forum to identify smart investments to end preventable child deaths is being convened here on June 14 and 15 on the sidelines of the Strategic Dialogue.

Although Indian ministers and members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, including Clinton, are attending this forum, a star attraction at this event will be the Oscar and Golden Globe award-winning actor Ben Affleck who has been designated the “spotlight” personality of the event on Thursday.

The forum has been convened by India, the US and Ethiopia in collaboration with Unicef. New Delhi’s role in this human development effort evolved after visits by Raj Shah, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, and Kathleen Sebelius, the US secretary for health and human services, to India recently.

Krishna is going to Cuba ostensibly for a meeting of Indian heads of missions in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the real purpose of his visit is something else. India had made no advance preparations for such a meeting and rushed a new ambassador to Havana only last week because of Krishna’s trip.

South Block is now hoping that C. Rajasekhar will present his credentials to President Raul Castro in Havana before the external affairs minister’s arrival there.

Krishna is travelling to Havana because the next Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit will take place in Tehran in less than three months and Cuba, as the immediate past chair of the movement, is part of its troika. India recently took a policy decision to revisit NAM.

A report released in New Delhi in February with significant inputs from national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and former foreign secretary Shyam Saran and called “Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century” offers a peek into New Delhi’s current thinking on the movement about which India is still deeply possessive.

Last week, India was signatory to a NAM statement by more than 100 countries supporting Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear development that was read out to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors by Egypt, the current NAM chair.

India’s determination to assert its independence from Washington despite growing bilateral ties has produced a recognition here of the need to respect New Delhi’s sensitivities in this regard.

Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said in a speech on Thursday that India and the US “will not always agree and India will maintain its strategic autonomy. But our broadening consultations, our common values, and the bipartisan support for expanding our relations suggest that we are likely to work ever more closely in the years to come.”

The following day, Nancy Powell, the American ambassador in New Delhi, said those who presumed that India and the US would always walk in lockstep had “no appreciation of the independence of both of us.”

It has not gone unnoticed in Washington that when Krishna was in Beijing last week for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang told the Indian minister that Sino-Indian ties represented the “real” relationship of this century, according to accounts in the American media.

The Strategic Dialogue has presented India an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to such strategic autonomy and Krishna is expected to make the most of this opportunity.


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