NEW DELHI (IDN) – Ranjan Mathai has got off to a good start as Foreign Secretary (the top diplomat for the country’s external relations) and enjoys a lot of goodwill. His seniority being generallyaccepted, his ascent to the top diplomatic post washardly contentious. He is well regardedby seniors, respectedby his peers and admired by more than a few in the service for his leadershipand people skills. “He is a team player, not egocentric,” commented a seasoned diplomat.
According to former Foreign SecretaryLalit Mansingh, he has therequisite professional experience as he has servedin the neighbourhood and incapitals such as Tehran,Tel Aviv, Vienna, Brussels, London and Washington. In his very first statement, Mansinghpointed out, Mathai rightly emphasized the importance of the neighbourhood. The region has not receivedenough attention althoughthe present government gave it the importance it deserveswith the Prime Minister speaking of “asymmetrical relations”.
Doubtless, relations withourneighbours would top any list of challenges facing the new Foreign Secretary. India cannot be a global player nor sustain a 9-10% growth rate without peaceful relations with our immediate neighbours.
Therefore, it was hardlysurprising that soon after assuming office he named “trust and confidence”in India-Pakistan relations and “maintaining an era ofconstructive cooperation in the immediate neighbourhood” as hispriority. Whetherthepresent dialoguewith Pakistan is described as “composite”or otherwise,Mathai appears determined to keep it substantive.
Relations with Bangladesh, which droppedfrom the euphoria of the 1970s to the other extreme, are vibrantly upbeat with the Prime Minister’svisit holding out the promise of new and rewarding vistas. Nepal would be a test of India’s strivingfor stability in the region as well as its supremacy in Asia, especially given China’sincreasing interest and influ- ence in shapingthe political course of the Himalayancountry.
One of the first initiatives to emerge after Mathai’s taking over will be the South AsianForum(SAF) with Mansingh in the chair. Although it is not an official government agency, SAF is expected to be an idea house for SAARC, shaping both thebroad direction and content of South Asian cooperation. The first hints of how SAF may impactSAARC, especially the SAARC summit next year in the Maldives,will be known during itsthree-day inaugural session from September7.
India is already present at most global high tables and, as a leading player in fora such as BRICS and IBSA, needs to find its feet and make its presence felt in others such as the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Mathai must be acutely aware of the larger role expected of New Delhi by a number of countries which see India as a power.
Diverse fora make for diversified relations with many countries. This is an area of great challenge in foreign policy where Mathai’s leadership would be measured against expectations, perceptions and performance.
There are countries of varying importance and relationships of differing strategic value. India has a strong strategic partnership with the US. But it is not without its problems, which need to be resolved without stoking antagonism. At the same time, older friends and interests represented by, for example, Russia, the UK, France and Germany should not feel neglected by the cementing of ties with new strategic partners such as Japan, Brazil and South Africa.
Mathai needs to be wary of diverse, even conflicting, sensibilities in negotiating these fraught diplomatic spaces. At the same time, under his helm, the Ministry of External Affairs has to prepare for global issues like climate change, terrorism, nuclear disarmament, piracy on the seas and protection of the global commons. At home, this translates into how the MEA – which deals with the rest of the world – works on these issues with the concerned ministries.
As Mansingh aptly put it, Mathai “has a full basket on his hands, and he has the experience to face the challenges”.
*The author is a political and foreign affairs commentator A version of this article appeared on gfiles india-inside the government [IDN-InDepthNews -Sep 5, 2011]
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