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Nirmala skips East, out of sync with Sushma

New Delhi, Aug. 27: Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said yesterday she wanted India to “Act East”, not just ‘Look East’. Within hours, her ministerial colleague Nirmala Sitharaman decided she would just skip the East for now.

An embarrassing disconnect between two key ministries in the Narendra Modi government has erupted in public on foreign soil, undermining the Prime Minister’s Independence Day pledge just 12 days ago to break down silos that divide government arms.

Commerce minister Sitharaman’s last-minute decision to pull out of key negotiations with her counterparts of 10 Asean nations beginning today in Myanmar has left India’s foreign office red-faced after it publicly stated in Vietnam that she would attend the meeting.

The foreign office statement by secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa yesterday was meant to signal India’s continuing commitment to inking a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Asean that New Delhi believes will bump up two-way trade from $80 billion to $200 billion by 2020.

Sitharaman’s decision the same day to junk the meeting because of “domestic compulsions” will be viewed not just by Asean nations but also across the world as a sign of India’s reluctance on a second key trade pact after the Modi government blocked a World Trade Organisation agreement.

“PM to launch Mega Scheme for financial Inclusion — an ambitious scheme — at least one bank account/family,” Sitharaman tweeted on Tuesday, referring to the Jan Dhan Yojana that Modi will launch tomorrow. “Unfortunately, (I) had to cancel attending (the) Myanmar meet.”

The economic ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and India were to finalise the FTA on services and investment today and ink it tomorrow in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar.

The meeting was planned when Sushma visited the country earlier this month for talks with Asean foreign ministers.

Wadhwa, at a meeting on the margins of Sushma’s visit to Vietnam yesterday, spoke publicly about “the meeting between Asean economic ministers and their Indian counterpart in Nay Pyi Taw”. At a meeting with Indian envoys to the region summoned to Vietnam, Sushma too spoke on the need to strengthen economic ties with the Asean community, borrowing the Prime Minister’s penchant for catchphrases by suggesting India modify its “Look East” policy to “Act East.”

Officially, Sitharaman’s decision to call off the Myanmar meeting followed the statements by Wadhwa and Sushma. But the fact that the commerce ministry did not make the foreign office aware of such a possibility points to the very absence of communication Modi has lamented.

In his address from the Red Fort on August 15, Modi had said he was surprised by what he inherited from the previous administration — the “dozens of separate governments” working without cohesion, often at cross-purposes “in one main government”.

“And that is why I have started making efforts for razing those walls,” Modi said. “I have started making efforts at making the government not an assembled entity but an organic unity, a harmonious whole — with one aim, one mind, one direction, one energy.”

The public disconnect on an international platform may also weaken Sushma’s authority as foreign minister globally, some diplomats fear, because of the appearance that she isn’t aware of Modi’s plans and views well enough.