| Talking head
By the time the “general debate” at the United Nations, where heads of state and government address the annual general assembly drew to a close this weekend, it had become a cliché in New York to say that the challenge of this year’s general assembly was one of defending multilateralism. What did not become a cliché — although it was repeatedly heard from delegates to the general assembly in the corridors of the UN building — was an assertion that the 58th general assembly saw India’s return to its foreign-policy roots after doubts and diversions for more than a decade.
The external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, said with some sadness before his departure from New York — where he stayed on after prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee flew home — that the India-Pakistan spat in the general assembly and outside eclipsed everything else that the Indian delegation did in New York. He was right. An event of potentially huge significance during Vajpayee’s week-long stay in New York was a summit meeting which received very little attention in India because of the heated exchanges between India and Pakistan.
On the margins of the general assembly, Vajpayee met the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and the South African president, Thabo Mbeki. The potential of this summit is that the growing contacts among the three leaders — described loosely in diplomatic circles as “India-Brazil-South-Africa Dialogue Forum” or IBSA for short — has the shades of a new G-3 of states which are developing, yet more developed than most countries of the Third World. The IBSA summit set in motion a process which will bring together the three countries in areas ranging from defence and agriculture to planning and technology — with a timetable.
By the time the three foreign ministers meet in New Delhi in March 2004, extensive trilateral meetings in all these areas would have taken place. To understand the significance of IBSA, it is necessary to recall Cancun. It was clear after the IBSA summit in New York last week that if it were not for a meeting of their three foreign ministers in Brasilia on June 6, the coordination among leading developing countries in Cancun would not have come about. That meeting in Brasilia, in turn, was the outcome of conversations among Vajpayee, Lula and Mbeki in Evian, a few days earlier at the G-8 summit, to which all three leaders had been invited by French president, Jacques Chirac.
Another similar meeting in New York last week, which has long term implications, is what is known among diplomats as the “trilateral foreign ministers meeting”, also on the margins of the general assembly. The first “trilateral meeting” of foreign ministers of India, Russia and China took place a year ago in New York, where the three ministers were attending the general assembly. It was a tame affair. The Chinese were so lukewarm about the whole process that Tang Jiaxuan, the then foreign minister, exited that meeting through a back door avoiding the media.
India went along with it. The originator of the idea was the former Russian prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov. But it took four years since Primakov proposed it in New Delhi for the first meeting of the three ministers to take place. The difference between last year’s meeting and the one last week was striking. So much so that the three ministers are to meet in Moscow again shortly: not for a brief New York-type session, but for a full retreat in Russia at the invitation of its foreign minister, Igor Ivanov. In all, Sin- ha met 20 foreign ministers in New York. Foreign ministers of all the five permanent members of the Security Council sought meetings with their Indian counterpart.
He met foreign ministers of eight out of ten non-permanent members of the Council and had discussions with his counterparts from three of the Council’s incoming members. He took part in meetings of foreign ministers of the south Asian association for regional cooperation, the group of 77, the Rio group, the non-aligned movement and attended a plenary meeting of the general assembly on AIDS. In a first for India, the Gulf cooperation council foreign ministers asked for a collective meeting with the Indian minister. The foreign secretary, K. Sibal, stood in for the minister at a high level ad-hoc conclave on Afghanistan.
Hoshyar Zebari, a member of Iraq’s governing council in charge of foreign policy, met Sinha. Adnan Pachachi, Iraq’s most respected leader in the post-Saddam era, spoke at that meeting about his hopes that Iraq’s new constitution could draw heavily from the Indian Constitution, a copy of which had been handed over to Pachachi a few days earlier by the Indian ambassador in Baghdad. The best publicized of all such meetings was that of the Commonwealth ministerial action group, because it decided to continue Pakistan’s suspension from the Commonwealth.
Two things are evident from Sinha’s schedule in New York, which was among the busiest for foreign ministers who were in the Big Apple for the general assembly. Firstly, the range and depth of India’s involvement in several of the multilateral meetings in New York showed a revived interest on New Delhi’s part to return to the roots of its diplomacy, once characterised by its leadership of NAM, its participation in G-77 and its desire to impart substance to the group of 15 (G-15).
After the Cold War, there were serious doubts in South Block about continuing the priority that New Delhi traditionally attached to NAM, G-77 and the like. These doubts led to a growing aloofness in interactions with these movements to the point where the Indian leadership stopped short of saying that they were no longer relevant. International developments in the last two years, culminating in the war in Iraq, have clearly led to a quiet reassessment of this policy. This does not mean that India is about to return to the heady days when it revelled in its leadership of the third world. Take IBSA, for example. The idea of the three-nation group was born out of the realization that while NAM and G-77 had become unwieldy and the G-15 inept, the ideas which gave birth to them were still relevant. India, South Africa and Brazil have credibility in their respective continents: that was what got them the invitation to Evian. They have the economic space and the political stability to be able to influence global decision-making, which is not something that can be said about most third world governments.
Through vehicles such as IBSA, India can, therefore, be counted on henceforth to live up to the ideals which created NAM, but without the fanfare of the Seventies and Eighties, which produced little by way of results. It was obvious in New York that India was not alone in thinking on these lines. The way the Chinese shed their reticence about the meeting of trilateral foreign ministers of India, Russia and China showed that Beijing too was reassessing its global options in the light of a series of events culminating in the war in Iraq.
India had been cautious about the trilateral arrangement lest it should be seen in Washington as an anti-US alliance, but the all-round confidence which was in evidence at last week’s meeting showed that such fears were now in the past. Here again, there will be no room for rhetoric in New Delhi, and the emphasis will be on positive objectives. More so since South Block realizes that of all three states involved in the trilateral process, it is India which figures lowest on the American radar.
The second aspect of Indian hyperactivity in New York last week is the new respect which India has earned within the international community. The requests for meetings with Sinha from all five permanent members of the Security Council is the best evidence of this. It would not have come about without the nuclear tests in 1998 and the way New Delhi managed the fallout of Pokhran II, or without the political stability and the growth of the Indian economy. Perhaps the biggest sign of maturity and sure-footedness in New Delhi’s post-Cold-War diplomacy was in the way its delegation in New York dealt with Pakistan.
Vajpayee did his best in New York to keep his peace initiative with Islamabad going. At an India-Pakistan meeting in New Delhi on September 14 under the auspices of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Sinha had cautioned that “the practice of turning every international and multilateral forum into a battleground to attack each other should end”. He specifically said then that “the forthcoming UN general assembly will be a test of this”. After arriving in New York, Sinha and Sibal advised Musharraf through friendly third countries not to rave at New Delhi lest it lowered the level of the India-Pakistan debate. But the general chose to ignore such advice while his aides tried to repeat the tactics which the Pakistanis employed during the Agra summit.
In New York, they attempted to exploit the “secular” weakness in the Indian media to misrepresent Sibal’s statements on Pakistan: their real target was the Indian diplomatic thrust in the Commonwealth against Musharraf’s readmission. In the end, none of it worked and the casualty may well be Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad for the SAARC meeting unless Musharraf changes his ways.