gfiles magazine

September 8, 2011

Mathai: Great expectations

 The new Foreign Secretary, armed with professional experience and insight, has promises to keep
RANJAN Mathai has got off to a good start as Foreign Secretary and enjoys a lot of goodwill. His seniority being generally accepted, his ascent to the top diplomatic post was hardly contentious. He is well regarded by seniors, respected by his peers and admired by more than a few in the service for his leadership and people skills. “He is a team player, not egocentric,” commented a seasoned diplomat.
According to former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, he has the requisite professional experience as he has served in the neighbourhood and in capitals such as Tehran, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Brussels, London and Washington. In his very first statement, Mansingh pointed out, Mathai rightly emphasized the importance of the neighbourhood. The region has not received enough attention although the present government gave it the importance it deserves with the Prime Minister speaking of “asymmetrical relations”. Doubtless, relations with our neighbours would top any list of challenges facing the new Foreign Secretary. India cannot be a global player nor sustain a 9-10% growth rate without peaceful relations with our immediate neighbours.
Therefore, it was hardly surprising that soon after assuming office he named “trust and confidence” in India-Pakistan relations and “maintaining an era of constructive cooperation in the immediate neighbourhood” as his priority. Whether the present dialogue with Pakistan is described as “composite” or otherwise, Mathai appears determined to keep it substantive.
Relations with Bangladesh, which dropped from the euphoria of the 1970s to the other extreme, are vibrantly upbeat with the Prime Minister’s visit holding out the promise of new and rewarding vistas. Nepal would be a test of India’s striving for stability in the region as well as its supremacy in Asia, especially given China’s increasing interest and influence in shaping the political course of the Himalayan country.
One of the first initiatives to emerge after Mathai’s taking over will be the South Asian Forum (SAF) with Mansingh in the chair. Although it is not an official government agency, SAF is expected to be an idea house for SAARC, shaping both the broad direction and content of South Asian cooperation. The first hints of how SAF may impact SAARC, especially the SAARC summit next year in the Maldives, will be known during its three-day inaugural session from September 7.
Whether the present dialogue with Pakistan is described as ‘composite’ or otherwise, Mathai appears determined to keep it substantive.
India is already present at most global high tables and, as a leading player in for a such as BRICS and IBSA, needs to find its feet and make its presence felt in others such as the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Mathai must be acutely aware of the larger role expected of New Delhi by a number of countries which see India as a power. Diverse fora make for diversified relations with many countries. This is an area of great challenge in foreign policy where Mathai’s leadership would be measured against expectations, perceptions and performance.
THERE are countries of varying importance and relationships of differing strategic value. India has a strong strategic partnership with the US. But it is not without its problems, which need to be resolved without stoking antagonism. At the same time, older friends and interests represented by, for example, Russia, the UK, France and Germany should not feel neglected by the cementing of ties with new strategic partners such as Japan, Brazil and South Africa.
Mathai needs to be wary of diverse, even conflicting, sensibilities in negotiating these fraught diplomatic spaces. At the same time, under his helm, the Ministry of External Affairs has to prepare for global issues like climate change, terrorism, nuclear disarmament, piracy on the seas and protection of the global commons. At home, this translates into how the MEA – which deals with the rest of the world – works on these issues with the concerned ministries.
As Mansingh aptly put it, Mathai “has a full basket on his hands, and he has the experience to face the challenges”. g

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