The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New Delhi this week was seen in some circles as a sign of the government’s capitulation to the Left Front.
Now that the all-too-brief visit is behind it, and the Finance Bill has been passed in Parliament, the time has come for the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its key ally, the Left Front, to sit and talk of many things — including shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages and kings.
The conversation around kings must of course revolve around the fate of Gyanendra of Nepal, who is currently teetering on the cusp of commonality. The victorious Maoists have declared that he must abandon both sceptre and crown and declare that he is no longer the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Maoist leader Hisila Yami as well as many of her comrades have insisted that Gyanendra could easily go back to being a businessman, and that he would indeed make a very good one. It is known that Gyanendra, before fate ruled heavily in his favour, was part-owner of the Oberoi Soaltee hotel in Kathmandu, a favourite hangout of Indian tourists as far back as the Hare Rama, Hare Krishna era of the 1970s.
It is said too that Gyanendra and the Maoists could be coming to some sort of an understanding about his future.
So, the king is dead, but long live the businessman with the privy purse (just like the kings and queens of India, who gave up their titles and kingdoms when they integrated into the Indian Union in 1950, in exchange for certain monetary privileges till 1971). And if this is to happen, surely the Indian government would be involved in negotiating the deal?
But back to Ahmadinejad whose day-long stopover in the Capital included dinner with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as an hour-long press conference with journalists. The terrible translation mucked up the President’s message. But it was clear at the conference that, between his passionate condemnation of the “bullying power” and equally eloquent anticipation of the coming crisis of global capitalism, the Iranian leader wanted to bury the hatchet with his Indian hosts and get a move on the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline.
Who in their right mind, after all, would voluntarily give up a $7.3 billion (about Rs29,350 crore) deal, even if the end-consumer is a country — India — that self-confessedly likes best to deal with the US? Truth is, all this talk of China coming in to replace India is more or less impractical, what with the Himalayas as an impregnable barrier, unless of course Iran and Pakistan build expensive liquefaction plants on their side and the Chinese build regasification plants on their own territory.
More to the point, New Delhi accepted the Iranian request for a “stopover” in Delhi, on the President’s return home from Colombo, with much alacrity. Considering both foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee and petroleum minister Murli Deora were there at the PM’s dinner, and the conversation revolved around both Afghanistan and the gas pipeline — experts from all three countries have now been enjoined to report back on all the issues to their respective countries within a certain time-period — Ahmadinejad’s refuelling stop turned out to be a fulfilling one.
The IPI pipeline was always about politics. When India twice voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Teheran threatened to cancel an LNG deal in the pipeline. At home, the Left Front turned up the pitch of its anti-American mutterings and began to accuse the UPA of selling out old friends for the sake of a few pieces of nuclear technology. By inviting the Iranian President to Delhi, and recommencing a serious dialogue on the “peace pipeline” as well as possible joint operations in Afghanistan, the government has shown the Left Front that it is willing to do business in a complex world.
All the signs are that the Prime Minister is certainly not giving up on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Let’s do both, goes the feeling in South Block (where the Prime Minister’s Office is located) — the gas pipeline as well as the nuclear deal with America.
The nuclear energy will take at least another couple of decades to arrive. If the gas can start flowing into India even in a decade, it will have helped assuage some of the needs of energy-hungry India. The next few weeks will tell us if the UPA will bite the bullet on the nuclear deal or not. Inflation continues to be a major worry, what with Karnataka going to the polls in May, and Kashmir in September. Since the nuclear deal is going to precipitate national elections, one view is that the Congress could wait till the monsoon rains to push ahead with it.
Still, on 29 April, Singh saw Budget 2008 clear an important hurdle, leaving him free to push ahead with the nucelar deal with the US even if it threatens his government’s relationship with the Left Front. And he broke bread with Ahmadinejad. If anyone is looking for a point of inflection, it is this.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and will write on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week. Comments are welcome at email@example.com