Manmohan Singh realised in Havana that he could hug Castro and Chavez and tight-walk the nuclear dealSanjay Kapoor HavanaA few days before the Air India flight ferrying Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from Brasilia, Brazil, landed at the Jose Marti airport, it had become apparent that the prime minister would have to show nimble footwork in a country where people have refused to do Salsa to the big neighbour's tunes. There was understandable apprehension in the foreign office about how to countenance the new radicalism of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). They painstakingly explained to mediapersons accompanying the prime minister that there was no way that India could have “sidestepped” the summit, as the evolution of India as a nation state was closely linked to NAM. “There would be a sharp backlash and public outrage against us ducking the NAM,” claimed foreign service sources. Their ambivalence found expression in newspapers that are generally not kind to third world causes. Some of them questioned why Singh was going to Havana at all. The government particularly feared the dim view that the Left parties would take if it stayed away from Havana. There were suggestions that the prime minister, before he agreed to fly to Havana from Brasilia, should fly past the Cuban capital and land in New York and take part in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Cognisant of its anti-imperial legacy and the ideological sustenance the NAM movement had provided to India, Prime Minister Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi both overruled these suggestions and committed India's participation in the summit. Both of them made it clear that relationship with any country would not be at the expense of the other (read the US). Taking a decision to visit Havana was the easy part. Perhaps, more difficult was how to traipse through the minefield that geography, history and contemporary politics had contributed in creating. Cuba has a legitimate grievance against the US for blockading it for the last 47 years. The embargo has pauperised an economy located 90 miles away from the US and so heavily dependent on tourism. India, traditionally, had opposed the embargo, but after its relations warmed up with Washington, it has stopped making these perfunctory noises expressing solidarity with Cuba. India was aware that Cuba would use the NAM summit to build up support against the US and its neo-liberal policies. What caused greater nervousness was the presence of a belligerent Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad. Foreign ministry officials, who had been working to iron out creases in the civilian nuclear deal with the US, did not want the anti-US rhetoric of Chavez and Ahmedinijad to bend the NAM agenda in their favour and consequently wreck India's embryonic nuclear deal. “A photo op with the likes of Chavez or Ahmedinijad could be a kiss of death,” they apparently signalled.Singh, in a news conference in the aircraft, hoped that the NAM would not divide nations and instead promote peace. He expressed desire that the summit would be non-confrontationist in which India would serve as a bridge between the NAM countries and the industrialised West. This was a new formulation for which there were no real takers as the agenda of the summit had been clearly set, first by the statements of the Foreign Minister of Cuba, Felipe Perez Roque, who said that 114 nations would join US President George Bush's 'axis of evil' after the NAM summit gets over, and later, by the dapper Vice-President of Cuba, Carlos Lag Davila. In an emotional but scathing speech to the foreign ministers belonging to NAM nations, Davila lambasted the US for its policies that were dividing the world. In what could also constitute as a veiled criticism of how it was supporting Israel, he said, “We must fight against a world in which a sovereign nation is denied the use of nuclear energy for peaceful ends while another is aided in the accumulation of nuclear arsenals.” He hit out against the US policies by saying that the “concepts of limited sovereignty, humanitarian intervention, preventive war and regime change are fascist; they are not modern theories designed to defend freedom and combat terrorism”. Raul Castro, filling in for his ailing brother and President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, repeatedly criticised the US by saying that “the current international situation, characterised by one superpower's irrational attempts to control the world, aided by its allies, shows that we need to be increasingly united in defence of the principles and purposes upon which the Non-Aligned Movement was established.”Chavez and Ahmedinijad got two chances to speak during the summit, first representing their own country and later their continents. Chavez said: “Let us join forces to push the sun in this new dawn... because I believe that it is possible for us now to create a world where no one country rules, nor one world gendarme, nor war nor cannons nor bayonets, but in which a world of love, peace and solidarity reigns."With the International Conference Centre in Havana resonating with such virulent anti-American speeches, Singh had to perform a delicate task: first, to establish India's primacy as one of the founding fathers of the NAM, and secondly, to steer the movement towards economic issues. Behind the scenes, Indian diplomats were splitting hair on what should go in the resolutions put together in Putrajaya in Malaysia. They managed to stall Malaysians from steering NAM towards the agenda set by the Organisation of Islamic countries (OIC), and Cuba from giving a radical edge to the summit. Indian diplomats managed to soften criticism of globalisation and managed to remove too many references to the “unilateralism” of the US. Needless to say, these moderate views met opposition from those who professed a hard line towards the US. The final resolution showed that the radicals had not done too badly when they reiterated the summit's commitment to contest unilateralism in the world order and hegemony of the single superpower. It resolved to work for democratisation of the UN, enhanced south-south cooperation, nuclear disarmament, and right of the developing countries over peaceful use of nuclear energy. It pleaded for north-south dialogue to resolve the deadlock over the Doha round of WTO negotiations and made an appeal to use diplomacy and dialogue for the resolution of the Iran (nuclear) issue.Singh, in his speech, expectedly, talked of the “confluence of civilisations” and emphasised on reforming and revitalising the UN. He demanded that the developing world should find true representation among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. He raised the issue of terrorism by saying that NAM cannot “equivocate on the subject of terrorism”. Without naming Israel, Singh criticised the pointless war heaped on the people of Lebanon. He recommended setting up of a high-level group for West Asia that would undertake a mission to promote understanding in the region. Earlier, the Indian diplomats had shot down suggestions for creating a conflict resolution mechanism within the framework of NAM. Singh's voice of reason and moderation did not set the Caribbean Sea on fire. Quite expectedly, his proposals seemed out of sync with the mood of the conference. Evidently, the speech was unlikely to satisfy the constituency back home that wanted the prime minister to dilate on issues of “pre-emption” in an international forum like NAM. Surely, the Left parties that back the UPA government must have been disappointed with such a speech. With his formal speech out of the way, Singh got down to damage control. And that meant meeting with all those leaders who share a different worldview. He met Ahmedinijidad, and later, the star of the show, Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan President came well prepared for his meeting when he told a surprised Singh that he had read the South Commission report authored by him in jail. He wondered why it could not be the basis of strengthening south-south cooperation. Singh explained that the report was written in a different time and context. Chavez beseeched the prime minister to play a more active role in NAM affairs. Singh later met Raul Castro and exchanged views of common concern. But that was not really enough. He had to meet the Cuban President even if Castro was convalescing and had not met many leaders, except Kofi Annan, Hugo Chavez and the Argentinian legislator and writer, Miguel Bonasso. Going back home without meeting Fidel would have shown him in poor light. It was like going to the Vatican and not getting an audience with the Pope. In that case, the Left parties as well as the BJP would have pilloried him for loosing clout and influence on a turf which was basically ours. Although the exact circumstances in which the appointment with Castro was organised are not known, but Singh managed to meet him around midnight at the Cuban communist party office. Castro, according to Singh, was frail but in good spirits. He engaged with him for 40 minutes and discussed with him about India's food and energy security. Castro also said how the US was cornering bulk of the savings and world financial system. “I thought I was in the presence of the greatest man of all times,” reflected a glowing Singh about his meeting with Castro to journalists on his way back home. Singh seemed a more confident and relaxed man after his trip to Havana and meeting all those worthies who would make US President George Bush squirm. He realised with manifest relief that it was possible to live through his assertion that relationship with one country could not be at the expense of the other. NAM did not scar Singh, as he had feared, but empowered him to take on the challenges that India's relationship with the US would throw up in the future.