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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 26

At Home and Abroad


Tuesday 19 June 2007, by SC


Eventually the UPA has been able to find a nominee for the President’s post: Pratibha Patil. A good choice no doubt—the first woman to occupy the office of head of state; because despite the NDA-backed Independent candidate, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, being a redoubtable figure whose political stature is exceedingly high and whose influence extends far beyond the confines of the saffron political party he subscribed to, the votes of the UPA constituents and its supporting parties of the Left plus Mayawati’s BSP (after her resounding triumph in UP) in the presidential poll outnumber those of the NDA partners as well as the just-formed regional Third Front led by AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalitha, and hence Pratibha Patil’s elevation to Rashtrapati Bhavan appears to be a foregone conclusion now that all doubts on who all are backing her have been removed. She is basically Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s choice, having been a party loyalist throughout. But in the national perspective what is of exceptional significance is the manner in which she handled such a sensitive issue as that of conversion as a Governor, not to speak of the administrative capabilities she displayed earlier as a Minister. She is, above all, non-controversial (like the other lady whose name had cropped up during discussions: Mohsina Kidwai) and that is why she has received unstinted support from all sections of the UPA and beyond. And even if the NDA partners have already agreed on fielding Shekhawat as an Indepen-dent, with Pratibha Patil’s nomination the PM’s contention that just as last time “we agreed on a consensus on A.P.J. Abdul Kalam” the NDA too should this time reach a consensus on the UPA nominee acquires more strength and meaning.

While India gears up for the presidential election, the developments in our neighbouring northwestern state clearly testify to the growing isolation of President Pervez Musharraf in the wake of the Opposition parties’ success in building mass sentiment against his suspension of the country’s Chief Justice using strong-arm tactics as also his attempts to gag the media to stop the coverage of Opposition demonstrations employing similar methods. In this setting the former PM, now in exile, Nawaz Sharif, has strongly pleaded against India signing any agreement on J&K with Musharraf’s illegitimate government whereas the other erstwhile PM, also in exile at present, Benazir Bhutto, has confidently declared that Musharraf’s ouster would neither be a disaster for Pakistan nor a nightmare for the West in general and the US in particular. All these are indicative of Musharraf’s current plight which is also manifest in the military dictator’s candid confession: “For the first time I feel disturbed.” There is no gainsaying that Pakistan and its people are eagerly waiting for a change in the country’s politity. One is still unsure of the nature of the change or whether it would at all take place, but it can safely be pointed out that the prospects of a return to genuine democratic rule in Pakistan have never been brighter in the last eight years, that is, since Musharraf’s seizure of power by dislodging Nawaz Sharif in 1999. This in itself is of phenomenal significance.

The PM has just returned from the Outreach Summit of the Group of Eight (the US, UK, France, Italy, Japan, Germany, Canada and Russia) and five major developing states loosely called Group of Five (China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa) in the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm, Germany. Manmohan Singh is reportedly not much satisfied with the outcome of the summit because, as he complained to the hostess, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was pointless to attend such meets if the G-8 already decides on what do and want the “others” to merely endorse those decisions, adding: “We are partners here, not petitioners.” The reservations of the PM are definitely valid. Yet the meet did see some notable developments. Merkel’s passionate advocacy of concrete steps to curb global warming—she pushed hard for an agreement on halving carbon emissions by 2050—did elicit partial response from the US (which has stood aloof from the Kyoto Protocol while seeking to undermine the exemptions for developing countries China and India): Washington predictably declined to join Europe in this endeavour but expressed readiness to consider the proposal instead of rejecting it outright—a step forward indeed. Fighting AIDS in Africa was another issue on which the G-8 has committed to spend $ 60 billion. As for the move to warn Iran, a formal warning has been issued in the wake of Tehran’s steps to go ahead with its nuclear programme but in effect not much headway has been made in the direction in substantive terms. The major conflict between Russia and the US as well as the European Union did surface on the Western plans for a US missile shield in Eastern Europe that Moscow legitimately feels concerned about and has taken measures to counter it, but ultimately it was none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin himself who came out with a striking proposal: Moscow would not retarget Russian missiles on Europe if the radar-based system is installed in Azerbaijan; even Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was taken aback and had to concede that it was an “interesting proposal” worth studying.

The PM’s separate talks with George W. Bush and Hu Jintao on the margins of the Outreach Summit were substantive if not productive. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was obviously the focus of discussion in the talks with the US President with the Indian side advancing a new proposal to help break the deadlock in some measure. However, the PM’s subsequent observation—“some tough negotiations will be required before we see the light at the end of the tunnel”—is noteworthy as it once again highlights the persisting difficulties based on differences in perception in concluding the deal. In his dialogue with the Chinese President Manmohan went out of his way to exude special warmth towards China but did not forget to lay emphasis on the ‘Guiding Principles’ that marked the ‘breakthrough’ accord arrived at when Hu Jintao came to India last, something from which the Chinese seem to be backtracking of late as observed in the new Foreign Minister’s pronouncements during his meeting with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Hamburg.

Even if the Summit did not achieve much from the Indian point of view, these valuable discussions on the sidelines of the formal sessions did make the Heiligendamm exercise worthwhile on the whole.

June 14 S.C.

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