Monday, October 27, 2008

Power & Politics / Mail Today, October 27, 2008

WE ARE headed for what undoubtedly is a winter of discontent. India is still groping in the dark about the true impact of the global meltdown; the markets have tanked to their lowest in years; inflation eased a bit last week but still not enough to raise cheers; Diwali has no good news for buyers or sellers alike, but with Parliament in session, the fireworks are not missed.

With the country on the boil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should have been at home tackling pressing problems. I was thus more than a bit baffled at his fiveday visit to Japan and China. That he chose to skip the brief Parliament session and the candidate selection process for the assembly elections makes one thing amply clear: he considers business and diplomacy more important than politics. I am told the dates for this latest round of diplomacy were fixed barely two weeks ago, just after the N- deal was finally signed and delivered. So, from one diplomatic front to another.

When we landed in Tokyo it was quite evident that the visit had been planned for its economic and political impact back home. He was able to extract an additional $ 1 billion in aid, over 70 per cent of which will go to the Congress- ruled Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, controlled by ally DMK. He was also able to wrangle a $ 4 billion loan for the 1,483 km Dedicated Freight Corridor between Delhi and Mumbai. Though Japanese officials were unwilling to conclude a more comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, the corridor was something that caught the eye of Japan’s businessman turned PM Taro Aso who sees big bucks in it for Japanese businessmen, since about 30 per cent of the money will flow back into their coffers. The icing was another agreement for an industrial corridor on the same route involving investment between $ 20 and $ 30 billion.

For Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, this was the most rewarding project to push for which he even got Mukesh Ambani to Tokyo. The Reliance boss deployed a combination of clout and charm and got Jap businessmen to sign another $ 100 million for conducting a feasibility report for the proposed Delhi- Mumbai corridor. Nath also made sure the nodal authority for the implementation of the projects will function under his ministry.

The bureaucratic grapevine has it that the minister’s brainwave is aimed at helping several friends who fell on bad days after the SEZ scheme ran into trouble. And the man who could be the next chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, if the Congress manages to beat the odds and the BJP in next month’s Early of discontent Nath hits ‘ Jap- pot’ elections, made sure the spotlight was not deflected from him.

He made sure that chief ministers of six states through which the corridor is to pass were as far away from Tokyo as possible. The brief two- day trip to Beijing was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second to China in less than a year, aimed less at letting the Chinese know that India was in a forgive and forget mood over Beijing’s sleight of hand over the N- deal and more to drown their collective financial sorrows with 45 leaders from Asia and Europe. After a peaceful, hassle- free week abroad, it’s back home to face the reality — of what it will take to put the pieces back together so the Congress has an outside chance of a shot at power in a few months time.

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