Minister of state, External Affairs, Anand Sharma in an exclusive interview to Hardnews
As the Indian economy gallops ahead to join forces with the rest of the world, foreign relations hold the key to whether the country is accepted in the exalted circuits of the nations which have a say in world affairs. It is critical, therefore, that the country’s foreign affairs are handled with élan and finesse. No easy task, especially in times of coalition politics. But the minister of state in the ministry of external affairs, Anand Sharma, seems confident that the country is making all the right diplomatic moves. In his maiden interview to any Indian magazine, Sharma spoke to Hardnews on a wide range of issues ranging from the US civilian nuclear deal, the pressure of the Left parties, Iran and volatile neighbours, among others. Excerpts
What is the major foreign policy challenges facing this government?
I would say the same challenges that all major democracies face - organised terrorism. There are also foreign policy-related challenges, given India’s growing profile. These would include economic diplomacy, and seeing through the fruition of recent agreements that we have reached with major powers of the world.
The Left thinks the US exerts too much influence on our foreign policy, and there is also a feeling that it is in conflict with even the traditional constituency of the Congress party
The perception of excessive US influence is incorrect. Our deepening of the engagement with the US has to be viewed as a positive development. The US is a pre-eminent world power and a better understanding between the world’s two largest democracies is a healthy development.
Are you convinced India’s foreign policy does not conflict with the Congress’ own interests?
Our foreign policy takes into consideration India’s own national interest and the role it is expected to play in the global community as an emerging power and a major democracy. India has played a constructive role with the IAEA. We have meaningfully engaged the EU3, Russia and other countries to bring about certain amendments in the resolution and our stand has been consistent and clear.
The Indo-US nuclear deal passes through ‘on now, off now’ phases. Now with the pressure on Iran, what shape does the future hold for this deal?
First of all, our understanding with the US is on a wide range of issues, some of which are of critical import. And those include the civilian energy nuclear cooperation, agreement on space cooperation, science and technology and the Knowledge Commission on agriculture. The understanding reached now on civilian nuclear cooperation is the recognition of India as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology and an impeccable record in non-proliferation. On the part of the US, they have to, get the US Congress to amend the atomic energy act and give access to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). From our side, it is a separation of our strategic and civilian nuclear facilities. Now, India is also negotiating India-specific safeguards with the IAEA. Both sides have taken the first steps. But before that I would like to mention that the very fact that there is a separation plan, both in the joint statement and in the understanding reached with President Bush’s visit, is an acceptance of the fact that India has a strategic military nuclear programme which we are committed to retain. The US, on its part, has also moved both the Congress, and has also written to NSG members. The unlocking of NSG will give India access to both fuel and technology. So I will say we will have the same advantages and benefits as all other nuclear states have.
Do you think the agreement will go through?
We remain optimistic. There is huge constituency in both the countries, which is aware of the value and benefits of a strategic understanding. So whatever understanding we are reaching with US are standalone agreements and are not influenced by any other extraneous factor or developments in or with regard to any other country or region.
We have interests with Iran for our energy needs. What will be our stand if the US attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities?
I would not like to comment on speculative reports. We have stated clearly that coercive method should be avoided, and diplomacy must be given adequate chance. Iran is a signatory to the NPT and surely does have right to civilian nuclear energy. At the same time it also has international commitments and obligations. There remain certain issues that are unresolved with regard to its enrichment programme. Those issues have to be resolved between Iran and the IAEA and also to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
The Iran issue is critical for us also because there is growing unrest in the Islamic world and is bound to have repercussions here
We in India understand how to co-exist in a multilingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic environment. Problems arise only when there is institutionalised or perceived discrimination against any religious community and minority, and that has no place in India. Therefore, India has remained insulated from conflict and turbulence that has affected many other countries.
With Pakistan there is a feeling that things have not moved much ahead after the NDA government. Does it have to do with the backing we have of the US, that obviates the need to do anything more?
That’s not true at all. When the NDA government left, let us not forget, the atmosphere was very tense. Today, air links have been restored and people from different sections are travelling across the border. We have a bus service between Srinagar and Muzzafarabad and Amritsar and Nankana Sahib, and a rail link between Rajasthan and Sindh. These people-to-people moves indicate the sincerity of our resolve to normalise and improve the environment in our subcontinent.
China is our competitor in trade, commerce, trained manpower and other areas. But being our immediate neighbour, they are also strategically important. How do we balance our relationship with them?
India and China realise the importance of achieving sound bilateral understanding and a meaningful relationship. Indian companies are investing in China. There is a growing economic engagement. If you look at trade, investments, goods coming from China, and the growth of trade in the last five years, that itself would indicate the dynamics of the bilateral exchange.
Nepal is in a crisis right now. Considering how closely India has been involved with that country normally, why is India not so proactive as one would expect it to be?
What has happened in Nepal is the fallout of internal dynamics. India has throughout maintained that restoration of democratic institutions and processes is a must. A political dialogue has to urgently begin between the king and the leaders of the representative political parties to break the deadlock.
But one feels Nepal uses us, in the sense of saying, “If you deny me this, I will get it from Pakistan, or China…”
There is a way in which you engage another country. We don’t want to be interfering, but at the same time, as a friend and neighbour, we have been constructive in our suggestions and replies.