| Difficult vote
On Monday, George W. Bush, America’s president, gave the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, a lesson in diplomacy, which Indian leaders — from every party — could benefit from. Bush had just received his daily morning briefings and was told that America’s pet hate, Venezuela, was ahead of its friend, Guatemala, in the election to be held later that day for a Latin American seat in the United Nations security council. From his Oval Office, Bush picked up the phone and called the prime minister just as India’s permanent representative to the UN, Nirupam Sen, was getting ready at his home to leave for the UN to cast his vote in what has become the most hotly contested election in the UN system since the end of the Cold War. Bush wanted India to vote against his bête noire, Hugo Chavez, who has staked a claim to be the inheritor of Fidel Castro’s leftist legacy in the US backyard of Latin America. Venezuela’s presence in the security council for the next two years would greatly enhance the legitimacy of Chavez’s claim to Castro’s mantle.
Bush’s style of diplomacy is in stark contrast to India’s. To cite the most recent example, when the Indian campaign for the UN secretary-general’s job on behalf of Shashi Tharoor came up against obstacles, Singh never did what Bush chose to do on Monday. Nor was the prime minister persuaded by the ministry of external affairs to pick up the phone and call the White House on Tharoor’s behalf.
The American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Stephen Hadley, the American national security adviser, declined to meet Tharoor during his entire campaign for the UN’s top job. They repeatedly met Ban Ki-moon, the man to whom Tharoor lost, because Ban is South Korea’s foreign minister and had official business in that capacity with Rice and Hadley. One phone call from Singh to Bush, similar to the call that was placed in the reverse direction on Monday, would have removed that handicap from Tharoor’s way. And if Rice and Hadley had met the Indian candidate, they would, doubtless, have realized the difference between someone who is articulate and charismatic like Tharoor, qualities that are important for a UN secretary-general, and the rival candidate, Ban, who is dull and has difficulty in stringing together three sentences in any language other than Korean.
This is not to say that such a meeting between Tharoor and Rice or Hadley may have changed the United States of America’s ultimate decision to support South Korea. The point is that India did not even try. Nor did Singh call up any other prime minister or president of a member state of the security council when Tharoor was having difficulties in getting appointments at the highest levels in those countries. Such an attitude, which contrasts America’s style of diplomacy, explains why India’s past is glorious and its future is always promising, but its present is a long list of missed opportunities. The moral of the story: when their interests are at stake, the Americans will leave no stone unturned.
What was worse about Monday’s telephone conversation between the prime minister and the US president was that South Block went into a tizzy as soon as Bush finished talking to Singh, some officials acting as if their tails were on fire.
The prime minister was too polite to tell Bush that if India were to vote for Venezuela in Monday’s election of new security council members, it would not be a vote against US concerns in Latin America, but a vote for strengthening legitimate Indian interests in Venezuela. That was the American line of argument when they decided to veto Tharoor. Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, told the then foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, in New York on September 20 that a US vote against Tharoor should not be construed as a vote against India: it was merely a vote for South Korea.
If the prime minister had told Bush that India has legitimate interests in Venezuela, he would not have been wrong. ONGC Videsh has signed up for a 49 per cent stake in the San Cristobal oilfield in Venezuela, which is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer. IRCON, the public sector infrastructure consultancy and the Venezuelan Railway Authority have signed an MoU, which recently opened up lucrative opportunities for India in the Latin American country’s infrastructure development. During Chavez’s visit to New Delhi a year and a half ago, the two countries took steps for cooperating in biotechnology, science and space.
Actually, Bush’s call on Monday was a case of history repeating itself. Through a sustained campaign of pressure, the US has managed to reduce India’s relations with Iran to a fraction of what they used to be and killed the promise of what the two sides had created through years of exchanges. India’s relations with Venezuela are a mirror image of New Delhi’s ties with Tehran. The engine of the relationship, in both cases, is energy security. Other similarities, such as mutually beneficial infrastructure cooperation, abound. And both relationships are cemented by a common foundation of political principles.
The left parties were wrong, last year, in denying the prime minister the room he needed for manoeuvre in balancing India’s relations with Iran against the country’s ties with the US. But in the case of Venezuela this year, they shirked their responsibility to see that India’s right to freely cast its vote in the UN general assembly was not only preserved, but also duly exercised. Beyond discussing the issue of Venezuela’s candidature for a security council seat at its politburo meeting on September 12 and calling for India’s support for Caracas the following day, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) chose not to press the Manmohan Singh government on this issue, which concerned India’s pride and freedom of choice in foreign policy.
Now, the left parties must insist that, as allies of the United Progressive Alliance government, they must be made privy to the entire process of decision-making in the Manmohan Singh government up to the time India’s permanent representative to the UN cast his first vote in the general assembly on Monday. This columnist knows of instances in South Block where ministers have been lied to about cipher telegrams because of a view that politicians are interlopers in the domain of professional diplomats. With the left parties, South Block’s attitude can only be more disparaging.
The truth about whether the UPA government succumbed to a threat from Washington and compromised the country’s freedom of action will only be known if the left parties insist on seeing the full details of the movement of telegrams instructing India’s permanent mission whom to support for the Latin American seat in the security council: that should include not only the text of the instructions but also particulars of how and when they were transmitted. The Bharatiya Janata Party could ask for the details too. But they will never be shown the materials since they are in the opposition; not so with the left parties. There is still time for New Delhi to assert its independence and publicly declare that it supports Venezuela in its bid for a two-year term in the security council. As things are at the time of writing, the voting may go into many more rounds until a clear victor emerges with two-thirds majority in the general assembly. China, Russia and a number of other countries have declared publicly that they are backing Caracas.
The irony of Bush seeking India’s support for Guatemala could not have been greater. Unlike India and Venezuela, which have had embassies in each other’s capitals for over three decades, Indian interests in Guatemala are looked after by New Delhi’s embassy in Panama. No one knows who looks after Guatemala’s few interests in India. Its only embassy in Asia, believe it or not, is in Taiwan. And the advice for Indians wanting to visit Guatemala is that they must apply four to eight weeks before their trip and the applications will then have to be sent to be vetted in Guatemala City, the capital. In other words, Indians are not welcome. But it helps if you have a US visa already stamped on your Indian passport. And yet, there is, in South Block, a strong lobby which wants India to vote for Guatemala, not Venezuela.