DESPITE being Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy for more than six years now, Manmohan Singh is yet to make the transition from economist to politician.
But there is no doubt that he has taken several important steps on his way to becoming an international statesman. Global leaders have been fulsome in their praise for the manner in which his government steered the economy at a time when most developed countries were reeling under the worst economic downturn in over 40 years.
At the last G- 20 meeting in the United States, Barack Obama led the tributes, hailing the Prime Minister as a “ visionary and a marvel”. Of course he doesn’t get, nor does he expect, such praise back home, where Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and the many senior ministers take care of the rough and tumble of domestic politics. The contrasting images could not have been more stark and that perhaps explains why Manmohan is devoting a disproportionate amount of time to international diplomacy as compared to domestic issues. So what does Manmohan really want? My hunch is that by the time he finally demits office at the end of the current term, he wants to leave a mark on two issues that are dearest to him: Indo- Pak relations and India’s deserved seat on the high table that is the United Nations Security Council ( UNSC).
The first has always been on blow- hotblow- cold mode. When things go from bad to worse, symbolic initiatives are taken. The visits of P. Chidambaram later this month for the SAARC interior ministers’ meeting in Islamabad and foreign minister S. M. Krishna to Pakistan in July are to be seen in this context.
But it is the UNSC seat that Manmohan eyes as the prize catch and he is leaving nothing to chance. From President Pratibha Patil who recently toured China, to vice- president Hamid Ansari, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and many sundry ministers, they are all flying around the world to seek support for India’s bid.
It may be a coincidence that two retired IFS officers are now presiding officers of the two houses of Parliament. But it is no coincidence that the combination has been chosen to champion India’s cause. The tours undertaken by the two since UPA2 came to power over a year ago gives us an indication.
The Lok Sabha speaker has been to New York, Rome, Geneva, Hungary, Luxembourg and Bhutan as head of parliamentary delegations where she tapped her hosts to support India. Ansari has been even more active. He has been to Kuwait, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan with the same objective. Back home, Ansari has been in touch with many heads of states and governments whom he knows personally.
In Delhi, he has also been meeting the local heads of the foreign missions in the presence of the secretary concerned in the foreign office.
Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee travels to the United States next week and is taking with him a large contingent from among the titans of industry who are scheduled to take their minds off business matters for a while to indulge in matters of diplomacy with their American counterparts. That apart, the government has launched a new offensive in economic diplomacy with commerce minister Anand Sharma leading from the front.
With the post- meltdown scenario still worrisome and much of Europe caught in a fresh financial crisis, the Middle east, Africa, Latin American and the CIS countries are the places where India is seeking increased trade and investments. The commerce ministry recently did a road show in Dubai in which most of the top 100 companies in India participated, and I am told it was such a big hit that the ministry is now planning more such road shows in the months to come.
India will almost certainly become a non- permanent member and chairperson of the UNSC for 2011- 12, for which elections will be held this October after the two other candidate countries, Thailand and Kazakhstan, withdrew and India’s candidature was endorsed by the Asian group.
Chinese president Hu Jintao told Pratibha Patil last month that Beijing was committed to India’s bid for a non- permanent seat in the UNSC for 2011- 12 and there was hope that this would lead to Chinese backing for a permanent seat.
If the government can win that, Manmohan will leave office knowing that he deserves greater credit than he has got.