Contrasting flavours of diplomacy

Updated: Jan 19 2002, 05:30am hrs
At the time of writing, the visiting US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has yet to meet Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Therefore, any assessment of his mission to the subcontinent - the second within three months - could be overtaken by events. Even so, the broad contours of the sole superpowers stance on South Asia are clear enough and will have to be taken into account by policy makers here.

Basically, America wants an early, if not immediate, resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue on all issues, including Kashmir, and this presupposes that the current tensions bred by the massive military deployments by both sides are wound down first. This is precisely what General Musharrafs Pakistan also wants badly. It is noteworthy that in General Powells statement in Washington and Islamabad there was no ambiguity about his support to the Pakistani view.

In New Delhi, however, there was an important change of nuance. While pressing for dialogue and de-escalation the visiting dignitary did add that it was for India, as a sovereign and democratic country, to decide whether General Musharraf had done enough to enable New Delhi to take the necessary next steps.

This was clearly the result of foreign minister Jaswant Singhs plain speaking that underscored this countrys resolve neither to lower its guard nor sit across the negotiating table with Pakistan until the Pakistani military rulers welcome words were matched by deeds. Kathni and Karni are Jaswants favourite words these days.

That is where the possibility of the US persuading Pakistan to hand over the Indian nationals on the list of the Twenty Most Wanted to New Delhi comes in. Powell made no bones about Indian assurances to him that South Block would provide Islamabad with additional evidence against the accused person whose extradition it seeks. This, hopefully, would give Musharraf the face-saving he apparently requires. In any case, intense engagement between the formerly estranged democracies will continue even though both Powell and his hosts have tersely ruled out American mediation over Kashmir. The foreign policy guru, Henry Kissinger, leading an impressive delegation to a Track II dialogue with India, has been even more emphatic in opposing any US role in relation to Kashmir unless both sides want it.

A few straws in the wind merit attention. Home minister Lal Krishna Advani, back home after a highly satisfactory sojourn in the United States has described Musharrafs January 12 speech as path breaking though he has hastened to add that the General must deliver what he was promised. Defence minister George Fernandes, in Washington quick on Advanis heels, has stated that while the situation along the border remain unchanged the standoff between India and Pakistan would be resolved. He has taken care, however, not to mention any time frame.

Against this backdrop, some shrewd observes of the Indian scene have been wondering why, while making enormous fuss about Powell, both the Government and the media have played down of the visit of Zhu Rongji, Prime Minister of China, Indias largest and most powerful neighbour.

A candid answer to them would be that the Indian media can often be capricious and that, in any case, preoccupation with Pakistan and the US currently overshadows almost everything else. What follows may be denied by those concerned but the sad fact is that New Delhi does not yet have a clear, coherent and long-term China policy. There are too many China-baiters in the ruling establishment and the strategic community.

China also contributes to this unhappy situation from time to time by its actions that cannot but cause pique to India. These include the signing, during the first of Musharrafs two visits to Beijing in recent weeks, of an agreement specifically with the Pakistani Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. Some eyebrows are now been raised in Delhi because Chinese President Jiang Zemin received Pakistani hardline General Aziz just when Zhu was meeting Atalji. However, other countries are able to live with this standard Chinese style; India, too, should be able to do so. It was all the more welcome that during Zhus talks with Indian leaders both sides deliberately avoided all contentious issues and concentrated on forging a constructive and cooperative relationship. There is every reason to applaud, and act upon, Zhus excellent ideas. He wants the measly $3 billion trade between the worlds two most populous countries to be trebled and Indian software and Chinese hardware skills in the IT industry to be married to each other. In a masterstroke he has exposed the unduly high consumer goods prices in this country and advised us to import cheaper components from China.

In his country, the Chinese Premier is called one-chop Zhu. He has immortalised this reputation by giving Infosys on-the-spot permission to open a branch in Shanghai. Let Atalji take notice.