Cancun, Sept. 13: It was a phone call unlike any other since the Indo-US lovefest began in March 2000 when President Bill Clinton visited India.
The call last Monday lasted just over five minutes, but for the first time, President George W. Bush was a supplicant before Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the conversation, details of which are now available from US sources.
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman who replaced Ari Fleischer, would only say that “the President noted that an ambitious, successful outcome in Cancun, especially in agriculture, would benefit all countries”.
The truth is that Bush has to neutralise the so-called Group of 21 countries which India and Brazil are leading in what is becoming a global fight against US and European efforts to hijack the institutions of international commerce.
If there is a WTO compromise here this weekend which requires the US to end or significantly reduce farm subsidies, it will mean that Bush will not be President in 2005.
Missouri and Arkansas are Republican states which voted for Bush in 2000. These states are also synonymous with soybean cultivation. Beef is identified with livelihood in Kansas, North and South Dakota and several states in the south, which are all solidly Republican.
Texas has cotton. Not only the President, but also his brother, governor Jeb, has a stake in Florida’s orange cultivation.
Thus it was, as a matter of political survival that Bush phoned Vajpayee as it became clear that the so-called Group of 21 ministers were on their way here, more determined than at the WTO meeting in Doha in 2001 to confront the US and Europe.
Vajpayee was not alone in receiving this SOS from the White House. Bush called President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, whose country is acting as the spokesperson for the 21 developing countries here.
Yesterday, he called President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina after US trade officials here reported to the White House that Argentina’s secretary of international trade Martin Redrado, an expert on farm issues, has been making out a sound case on behalf of the Group of 21 at WTO meetings.
McClellan made it a point to mention that Bush had referred in his conversation to an agreement concluded this week between Argentina and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to tide over that country’s financial catastrophe.
The implication was that even after US treasury secretary John Snow had offered explicit support for the IMF deal, Argentina was being ungrateful.
If the developing countries do not back off and if cajoling does not work, Washington will clearly look for ways of punishing these countries.
Already, Senator Charles Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has circulated a memorandum among reporters covering the WTO expressing disappointment with eight members of the Group of 21 that are seeking free trade agreements with the US.
“This makes me question their... interest in pursuing the strong market access commitments required to conclude the trade agreements with the US,” Grassley said.
The underlying message is that these countries had better abandon the partnership with India, China and the like or they will have to pay for not supporting the US. It is a more subtle version of the “if you are not with us, you are against us” message on terrorism which emanated from the White House after September 11.
For India, which has already turned down a US request for troops in Iraq, this poses a dilemma.
There will be many people in Washington who will see the Indian position on both the UN and on the WTO as a relapse to policies during the Cold War era.
For now, India has pushed the public persona of Brazil into speaking on behalf of the Group of 21, Argentina on agricultural issues, China on export subsidies and Malaysia on the so-called Singapore issues such as investment and transparency in government procurement.
As the Americans and the Europeans offer private deals to wean away countries from the Group of 21, India has the backroom responsibility of holding the group together.