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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 November 2007, 13:26 GMT
India's foreign policy pragmatism
By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Delhi

Protests in Rangoon
India has kept a diplomatic silence over recent Burmese protests

Just as thousands of saffron-clad Buddhist monks hit the streets of Rangoon to protest against the military junta, India's oil minister was in the Burmese capital negotiating greater involvement for Indian gas companies.

For days the Indian foreign office maintained a studious silence as violence escalated in its neighbour.

Pressure on the Indian government from US and European countries did not deter Delhi from its now well-established policy - that economic and security interests dictate foreign policy.

Earlier this year Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Burma and was questioned on India's growing economic and military ties with the authorities there.

"India is a democracy and it wants democracy to flourish everywhere. But we are not interested in exporting our own ideology," he said.

The remarks reflect the new pragmatism that dictates India's foreign policy.


On a number of recent issues India has either refused to react, delayed its response or just said it is an internal matter for the countries concerned.

Israel's invasion of Lebanon last year, the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the actions of Sudan's military authorities, Iran's nuclear stand-off with the US and the recent crackdown in Burma are all examples of this new approach.

Israeli army tank in Lebanon
India has had little to say about violent events in the Middle East

At least 100 Indian companies have invested more than $2.5bn in Sudan, led by the public oil company, ONGC Videsh, which recently built a 700km pipeline project in the country.

It did so while flouting international guidelines on investment in Sudan compiled by the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan.

Following the Indian government's decision to look for new areas of investment in Sudan, power generation companies, tractor, construction and real estate companies have made a bee-line for the country. The automobile giants, Tata and Maruti Suzuki are also scouting for opportunities.

In Iran, ONGC Videsh has sought a 20% participating interest in the Yadavaran oil fields with an estimated capacity to yield 60,000 barrels of crude daily. Linked to this is the liquefied natural gas deal that India signed with Iran in 2005.

Syria, another country that the US has named as a sponsor of terrorism, has also generated strong interest in Indian oil companies. ONGC Videsh has inked a contract to explore over 3,800 sq km in central eastern Syria for oil.

India's Oil Minister Murli Deora (R) with Iran's Special Representative and Oil Minister Ghanimi Fard
India and Iran are earnestly talking about oil

Such investments in the last few years are reflective of the "flexibility" that has come to dictate India's foreign policy.

An important development in the 1990s triggered a change in outlook towards Burma. For years India had championed the cause of pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

In 1993, India awarded the Nehru Peace prize to her in recognition of her contribution to world peace.

The decision to do so provoked Burma, which lost no time in releasing anti-India rebels it had arrested at Delhi's request.

This presented a warning to the Indian political establishment. The Congress government decided to steer away from what had been an avowed policy to support pro-democracy movements all over the world, to make foreign policy decisions based on its interests.

Today, India sees Burma as its strategic gateway to East Asian countries.

Booming economy

G Parthasarthy was India's ambassador in Rangoon when the policy turnaround took place. He says India's perception gradually changed after the end of Cold War and apartheid.

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee
Mr Mukherjee believes foreign policy should reflect practical realities

Mr Parthasarthy points out that Burma shares a long border with India and its sensitive north-eastern states where many separatist groups are active.

"We need friendly neighbours and Burma has been a good one," he says.

But it has only been good for some.

Insurgent groups who for decades used Burmese soil to launch attacks into India have been largely controlled. In return India has refused to comment on Burma's internal affairs.

Today the world recognises that India is the only country which might be able to influence the Burmese junta, apart from China.

A booming economy coupled with a growing energy demand has led Indian policymakers to look at various options.

India has a 20% stake in the huge Shwe gas field in Burma.

Comparatively late to invest in Burma, India is now building roads across the country that will connect the rest of India with its north-eastern states.

Delhi is now treading a difficult path

Sittwe Port - which will connect the state of Mizoram with the rest of India through river transport - is nearing completion.

In the past, India did not engage with military dictatorships. But in these days of globalisation all that changed. Delhi wanted to check China's growing influence, while looking beyond mere political interests.

It was felt that there was a need to focus on India's economic and energy security as well.

And many Indian politicians and academics point to Western hypocrisy over their selective criticisms of India's Burma policy.

They argue that China and Vietnam are also one-party states, but the West has no scruples about dealing with them.

Neither have the US and others been reluctant to intervene in Iraq, influence the government of Pakistan or support the Taleban before 9/11, they say.

"India cannot afford the luxury of being selective. We are not in the business of selective sermonising," says Mr Parthasarthy.

All this also vividly illustrates another recent geo-political development: the weakening of the Non-Alignment Movement which Delhi championed in earlier decades.

India is now treading a different path, where building bilateral relationships is considered to be a better way of engaging and influencing countries.

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Timeline: Burma
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