Not talking is not the same thing as not communicating. Narendra Modi and his team should have taken the nation and the world into confidence about the WTO-TFA – India imbroglio

news Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 05:30
Chitra Subramaniam | The News Minute | August 2, 2014 | 08:32 am IST Between large sections mostly in the western media, diplomats, NGOs and trade-watchers in Geneva, London, Brussels and Washington calling India a party-spoiler for the collapsed World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) talks and US lawmaker John Kerry and his team upping the ante in New Delhi calling India’s stance disappointing, fell Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence. For a Prime Minister who secured such a massive mandate underwritten by aspirations for jobs, employment, commercial diplomacy and India’s place in the sun, the absence of any engagement with people and media in the run-up and during the WTO talks was deafening.  The News Minute (TNM) had taken the position that more than the BRICS summit in Fortaleza (Brazil) last month, a serious test of the Modi government’s resolve to drive its commercial trade policy would be the subject of international scrutiny beginning with the TFA tangle at the WTO. The positioning was obviously thought through, but it was not shared adequately – in fact it was not shared at all.  Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of sustained briefings, noise and thunder filled wires and websites suggesting that the world was about to fall apart if India didn’t sign up. By the end of this week, there were stories that the United State (US) and the European Union (EU), miffed at India, had gone off on their own with a few countries that included Norway, Australia and Switzerland, implying that India had missed some boat. Countries and blocs negotiate with each other all the time and no one including the obdurate can ignore a market the size of India. But there was widespread public perception that India was being petulant. The Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) is not rocket science and at the heart of the problem is the gap between India’s policies and how they are structured versus those of the WTO, its structure and timetable. Much of the spade-work for rationalizing these policies was done by the last round of trade talks, the Uruguay Round and there was space for India to maneuver. Except that food prices have soared since baselines have been set and India now has a Food Subsidy Bill (FSB) written into national laws. The types of changes that must now be made require time, maybe even a decade and both the US and the EU live that every day. Doesn’t matter if they decided not to understand, but it should have been said and repeatedly said.  The other part is that gains from the TFA - $1 trillion to the global markets and 20 million new jobs - have been grossly exaggerated as the pact proposes no solution either by way of incentives or reforms that require political will and not pure muscle.  Instead of explaining this, New Delhi stuck its head in the sand, leaving the world to look at press releases and statements on government websites at a time when people were expecting the Union Trade Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Union Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cut to chase, occupying the space that they had together cleared in Lok Sabha 2014, securing the confidence of Indians to lead not just in India, but abroad as well.  What was woefully inadequate (and invisible) was a strategy to communicate once a day about progress or lack of it and the reasons for why India was asking for leeway and time. Not for a moment in this to suggest that New Delhi should have negotiated through the media, but leaving the world to interpret the talks was unwise. Multilateral trade talks are contracts between countries, something which trade, finance, commerce and foreign ministries in countries work at on a continuous basis. On a graph, a meeting such as the one that tanked in Geneva is a peak which will be followed by troughs.  Anand Sharma, Union Commerce Minister in UPA 11 – which negotiated the TFA – used to talk to the media much too often to say make motherhood and apple pie-like statement about India never letting its farmers down. Sharma was no trade heavy-weight - in fact his predecessor Kamal Nath had more gravitas and kept the right people in the right places briefed, sometimes correctly.  Not talking is not the same thing as not communicating. Narendra Modi and his team should have taken the nation and the world into confidence about the India-WTO-TFA imbroglio. Silence can be a negotiating strategy, but it cannot be a communication strategy.

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