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India will host Aung San Suu Kyi in mid-November, finally paying its respects to the only leader in the modern world who has had the strength to imbue the hurly-burly of politics with moral force by standing up to her adversary for 22 long years.
India believes it has a special connection with Suu Kyi, not only because her father, Aung San, and Jawaharlal Nehru were friends but because she studied in Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College in the ’60s, when her mother was ambassador to India.
To those Myanmarese who will point an accusing finger at India, accusing it of abandoning the National League for Democracy and Suu Kyi when they needed her help the most, and cosying up to the Myanmarese junta, the Indian establishment will shrug its shoulders and argue that by holding the junta’s hand and assuring it of Delhi’s vote of confidence, the generals felt confident enough to ease the pressure on Suu Kyi and let her have her freedom.
It’s a moot point, one that has been forever debated between the realist school of politics and those who prefer to adopt the high moral ground. Certainly, it was nigh impossible for India to ignore the power play in its neighbourhood, especially with China tightening its grip on Myanmar. By wooing the moderate faction of the generals, India hoped to redeem some of space that had been ceded to Beijing. This strategy was first mounted a decade ago by inviting then second-in-command in the military hierarchy, Gen. Maung Aye to India. Last year, as Myanmar seemed to be opening up to the world, the visit of Gen. Thein Sein (he began his trip to India in Bodh Gaya) was reaffirmation of Delhi’s Middle Path policy.
The visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier, in late May this year to Yangon and Naypyidaw, the new capital built by the generals in the middle of the country, signalled the return of India to Myanmar. The PM carried with him a business delegation not seen in recent years to an underdeveloped country — from Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel to Naveen Jindal of Jindal Steel and Power and several more doyens of Indian industry were there.
But what happened after that? There seems little follow-up or implementation of the vision thing in Myanmar, a classic case of lethargy following success. Banks remain wary of opening letters of credit, citing old school scenarios of extreme caution. Big business continues to argue that they need further government assistance.
The upshot is that once again it is the small and medium businesses, in timber and jewellery stones and lentils (north India’s huge consumption of rajma, the red kidney bean, almost exclusively comes from Myanmar), that continue to fly the flag with Myanmar. After all these years of trying to create a wedge between the Myanmarese generals and China, in the hope that Indian business will fill that space, it seems as if this round has been lost.
This lack of sustained convergence between political strategy and business continues to bedevil the expansion of India’s sphere of influence.
Look all across south Asia or Central Asia and one clearly sees how private business is failing to capitalise on the leads that are being created by Indian foreign policy-makers. Afghanistan is a classic example, with the government continuing to pump in money into small and big projects in that country. In the case of the $11-billion Hajigak iron mine tender that has been won by a consortium of Indian companies, the Indian private presence is more or less indifferent.
The question is, how does India position its brand in these virgin territories if Indian business seems more or less disinterested? There’s enough money to be made in the West, goes the Indian business refrain, so why should we bother about Central Asia and Africa and Myanmar?
Even in China, where Indian business constantly complains about barriers that Beijing has specially raised for them in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors, the truth is these businesses don’t seem to have mounted an extra special effort that is also public, to circumvent these strains.
Certainly, the government and big business need to talk to each other much more to leverage Brand India abroad.
The new external affairs minister Salman Khurshid is contemplating a visit to all the South Asian capitals after Suu Kyi’s visit to India, a welcome thought.
But he and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma would be doing the country a good turn if they sat down together and thought of new ways of sealing a new economic-diplomatic partnership.