The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Baggage from South in North
- Foreign kickoff for speech

Jaswant Singh simply can’t take off his foreign minister’s hat.

Even eight months after he moved from South Block to the finance ministry 100-odd yards across the road in North Block, Singh forgets or chooses to ignore that he is no longer required to articulate India’s foreign policy.

“The circumstances in which we meet are defined by the current global uncertainties; their vortex lies over the Gulf and Iraq is at the very core of it even as the Israeli-Palestine conflict smoulders,” Singh started off his budget speech this morning.

Using some of the favourite jargons from his foreign ministry days, he continued: “Vast naval armadas crowd the waters of North Arabian Sea, and land and air forces prepare for battle. Nearer, our neighbour Afghanistan, torn by decades-old violence, continues to struggle with post-Taliban tremors. In northeast Asia, old animosities are flared to criticality through irresponsible external assistance.”

Giving the backdrop in which he had to prepare the budget, the minister added: “And, our immediate western neighbour, riven internally by multiple fault lines, spews venomous terrorism from the cauldron of its compulsive hostility for India.”

If Yashwant Sinha — with whom he swapped portfolios — was confused while listening to Singh drawing up the big picture of the world outside, he did not show it. But there were others who did not quite know why the situation in India’s immediate neighbourhood and areas of strategic interests played such an important role in the country’s budget this year.

“It is a good thing that for the first time we have a finance minister who has a good knowledge of what is happening in the outside world,” an official in South Block said.

The official argued that much of what Singh said about developments in Iraq and the neighbourhood was because of media reports of how India’s economy will be affected if Washington declares war against Baghdad.

Others were not so complimentary. “You have to understand his background. He cannot get over the fact that he is no longer the foreign minister. Therefore, he does not want to miss the opportunity of letting people know that he may be the finance minister but he has not lost his ability to speak on foreign policy,” a senior diplomat said.

But what really foxed many in South Block was Singh’s announcement that India will no longer offer credit to many of its friends in the developing world. “I am happy to announce that the government proposes to generally discontinue the practice of extending loans or credit lines to fellow developing countries,” Singh said. He informed that in future, grants or project assistance would be given to developing countries in Africa, South Asia and other parts of the developing world.

The finance minister’s announcement sparked off a major re-think in South Block. Discontinuing credit lines will prevent India from getting back its money, as most of it now will be given as grants and assistance for specific projects. It also puts Delhi in a spot with countries in Africa and South Asia, where the Chinese are generous in opening their purse strings.

“This is a major surprise for many of us and it will definitely put us in a disadvantageous position,” a foreign ministry official said.

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