Displeasure In Denmark

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Oct 24 2002, 05:30am hrs
Some years ago, a Dutch diplomat queried a group of us over lunch about Kashmir: why does India not resume dialogue with Pakistan, what is wrong with outside mediation, why do we shy away from a plebiscite, and why do we act so guilty anyway His questions, taken literally, were innocuous and mirrored a growing feeling among us about Indias rigid diplomatic posture and its diminishing returns. But his manner was another thing altogether: it combined magisterial self-importance with visible relishment at having provoked us. The more some of my colleagues got annoyed, the more his eyes twinkled. He was clearly having fun.

Mr Yashwant Sinha perhaps had to undergo similar discomfort in Copenhagen two weeks ago at the annual India-European Union (EU) summit when the Danish Prime Minister, now heading the EU presidency, refused to include any mention of Pakistani terrorism in the joint declaration. Versions of what happened in Copenhagen vary, but it is clear that protocol was broken, they preached to us again about Kashmir and we reacted with our usual hypersensitivity and irritation.

There are many things quirky about the EU, but one of the trickiest for us is how to handle relations with smaller EU states like Denmark, Belgium and Netherlands which now punch more than their weight in foreign policy, especially when they take on the rotating EU presidency. India-EU relations, at least in the context of these annual summits, are beginning to mirror the frustrations of foreign investors in India who face junior bureaucrats from, say, Chhattisgarh or Mizoram. They know they can always lobby the real powers at the center with a more receptive audience, but it is a huge hassle and a humiliating experience nevertheless. And it is going to get only worse after 2004, when 10 more countries join the EU. The point is not to disparage these smaller countries. In fact, most Dutch or Danes I know are a very friendly, liberal and nice lot. But their foreign policy establishments have not completely forgiven India, and especially the Bharatiya Janata Party, for the nuclear tests. Many of them have their Robin Raphaels and are itching to put us in our place. Also, we have historically ignored smaller EU states, often a result of our own huge egos in previous generations. The office and bureaucratic adornments that come with the EU presidency are easy temptations to take a radical and aggressive stance on issues far away.

Sadly, India still remains just that, a far away concern. In many ways, Europe discovered the economic potential of India ahead of America, and in some sectors such as telecom, European firms have large investments and exposure in India. But business relations between Indian and EU are either strained or static. Issues such as democracy, the non-resident Indian lobby, and the China card do not earn us as high points in Europe as they do in the US. Aside from trade and investment, what concerns the European mind and shapes public opinion are issues of corruption, development and human rights.

The diplomatic corps in Europe has also changed significantly in the past two decades, with entrants from business, social work, journalism and ethnic minorities. Most of them do not have the typical big power diplomacy mindset. If anything, they have neutral-to-positive feelings towards India, and certainly know that Pakistan is inherently an unstable and hugely unfriendly place. But Pakistans loss is not always, and in fact need not be, our gain. Despite ten years of sputtering reforms and for all the fashion shows and wine festivals imported from the West, India has not been able to project itself in Europe as more than a country which refuses to get its act together; a country with great potential but also with huge problems of poverty and social unrest.

In the end, there is still much goodwill for India in Europe, but only if we can break out of the strangulation of the Kashmir imbroglio and are less reactive to outside sermonising. We can still make it up next year when the next summit in 2003 is held under the Italian presidency, a country which likes us more than many others do and more than we perhaps realise, despite the heap of offensive Italian references from Praveen Togadia and Narendra Modi.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors