Ennui in Europe

Print edition : November 08, 2002

A look at the balance sheet at the end of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's week-long European tour.

UNLESS there is a major diplomatic mishap, prime ministerial visits abroad are routinely portrayed as a success, and to that extent official claims on behalf of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's recent week-long European tour (October 7 to 13) must be treated with some scepticism.

Vajpayee himself described his talks in Nicosia, Copenhagen and London as "productive" and said that he was able to put across the Indian "perspective" on South Asia and Pakistan's continuing support for cross-border terrorism. He highlighted the economic dimension of his visit, particularly his participation in the Third India-European Business Summit in Copenhagen, an event that Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, with some exaggeration, sought to project as a pointer to India's growing international stature.

Vajpayee drew comfort from the fact that the European Union Declaration, issued on October 11, "welcomed the successful conduct of elections in Jammu and Kashmir in the face of terrorist violence and intimidation", and that wherever he went he found "goodwill" for India. In a "departure statement" in London at the end of his visit, he spoke in glowing terms of his meetings with his hosts and their impact on bilateral relations.

While the statement was full of references to "closer interaction", "convergence of views" and "strong and vibrant" ties with host nations, independent observers dismissed it as "diplomatic hyperbole". They pointed out that far from yielding any concrete results, the visit did not even generate enough interest outside the conference rooms. Barring an odd interview, the visit was largely ignored by the local media, particularly in the United Kingdom where none of the major newspapers deigned even to take note of Vajpayee's talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"It was a non-event in every sense of the word. They listened to him and made polite noises but that's about it," a seasoned India watcher said. He dismissed the business summit as a "routine affair" and a "talking shop". He said it was highly unlikely, for instance, that the E.U. would give up its protectionist policies vis--vis India and other developing countries as a result of Vajpayee's intervention.

Overt and covert protectionism was a major theme of Vajpayee's address to the summit, but all he got was sympathy and a vague assurance to address the issue. Similarly, despite India's claims of convergence of views, there was a very public falling out with the E.U. as it refused to include a reference to Pakistan in the context of cross-border terrorism in the final declaration. This provoked an angry Indian reaction, with External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha himself leading the charge. The flap followed strong remarks by Chris Patten, the E.U.'s Commissioner for External Affairs, that India should stop seeing its relationship with Europe through the Pakistani "prism".

Indeed, there is speculation that India was somewhat disappointed with both the E.U. and Blair in relation to the India-Pakistan stand-off, though Yaswant Sinha said that Blair "endorsed" the Indian position that a dialogue with Islamabad was not possible until all cross-border terrorism stopped. Vajpayee's stinging attack on the West's "double standards" over terrorism, shortly after his meeting with Blair, was seen to reflect India's frustration that the West was not sufficiently appreciative of its concerns even if his remarks were not directly related to his discussions.

"Unfortunately, the problem is that Western countries regard the threat they themselves face from terrorism more seriously. They don't attach the same seriousness to the threats to us," he told a gathering of Britain's Indian community.

VAJPAYEE'S whistle-stop visit to Britain was perhaps the most perfunctory part of this round of travels. His only official engagement was a meeting over tea with Blair, who had just returned from an exhausting visit to Moscow on a Bush-inspired mission to win Russian support over Iraq (story on page 57). And given his preoccupation with Iraq, it is doubtful whether he was even able to concentrate fully during his meeting with the Indian Prime Minister. Incidentally, on Iraq India and Britain have differing positions but Blair is unlikely to lose sleep over the fact that New Delhi does not share his viewpoint.

Vajpayee's discussions in Cyprus were apparently more relaxed, more wide-ranging and productive. For whatever it is worth, Cyprus even backed India's case for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and expressed full support for New Delhi's Kashmir policy vis--vis Pakistan. The two sides also signed a string of agreements on mutual cooperation in areas that range from information technology to health and medical services. It was also in Nicosia that Vajpayee launched some of his most stinging broadsides against Pakistan, publicly ridiculing President Pervez Musharraf for anointing himself the leader. "Apne haathon se mukut pehna liya (he crowned himself)," he said.

It is not possible to quantify the outcome of Vajpayee's European travels but one does not have to be a cynic to resist the temptation of talking it up. For all the talk of Indo-European economic partnership, the fact is that it is defined essentially by the European search for new markets, and right now India fits the bill. Vajpayee's concerns over protectionist barriers illustrate the limits of "cooperation". Similarly, the hype over "clamour" for Indian talent abroad no Indian Minister or official forgets to remind you of the international demand for Indian brains ignores the fact of "market forces". Indians are welcome only so long as they do not hurt the domestic "talent", and the backlash has already started with the British government, particularly, it being under pressure to go slow on its "fast track" visa policy for Indian IT whiz kids.

A comparison with what happened in the 1950s and 1960s when Britain imported a lot of cheap manual labour from Punjab as its own people did not want to dirty their hands, might be stretching it too far but at the same time gloating over the demand for "Bharatiya" talent, as Vajpayee did during his interaction with the Indian community in Britain, would be a short-sighted thing to do.

The big question as to whether his visit achieved anything substantive remains, but it would be misleading to pretend that it was anything more than a routine diplomatic journey that is already forgotten in the host nations.

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