Telegraph Calcutta

G 20: Of A Fire in The Sky

Strelna, Off St. Petersburg, Sept 6: The fireworks weren’t all celebratory. Under the canopy of spectacular starbursts that lit up the darkened skies last night, world leaders sat rigid and divided down the long table over Syria at the gilded Peterhof Palace.

Tableau artistes staged vivacious song and dance, but the tremors of war rumbled underfoot; an elaborate dinner lay served, but host and guests alike picked on differences rather than delicacies. The world was pushing patience and consensus, the United States remained unmoved of adopted aggression, saying it could barely wait to strike.


When Russian President Vladimir Putin invited UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to the lectern, the G 20 assembly could foretell what was to come: a plea to await evidence on the use of chemical gas by the Assad regime, an appeal to build consensus. UN scientists, Ban Ki Moon said, would produce their conclusions on the Syrian gassing “within a matter of days”; the world should proceed with caution and consensus on the way ahead.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh added his own to voices of prudence, saying any action should be based on evidence and must proceed on the collective authority of the UN Security Council. India, he iterated, condemned the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, but underlined his riders in the extant case. “We need to be certain of what happened,” the Prime Minister said, “We need to wait and see what UN inspectors (who are currently analyzing human tissue samples from the site of the sarin explosions) conclude.”

His position came clearly informed by the Iraq experience where US-led military intervention had proceeded without enough evidence in hand and led to no discoveries of weapons of mass destruction, the initial ruse for invading and then unseating Saddam Hussein. Singh made it clear he stood across the fence from current US understanding and representation of the situation in Syria, and seemed to be spelling out strong reservations about what could unfold with US military action. “We are not in favour of regime change,” the Prime Minister pointedly said, “What happens should follow a UN consensus.”

But for the Americans, the case is already made, the evidence conclusive, the culprit identified — the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and that constitutes a security threat we cannot countenance. Defeated at home by anti-war sentiment in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister David Cameron continued to wave an individual flag for Washington. He regretted the Parliamentary rebuff to his push for military action and blamed his MPs for “failing to act against the gassing of children”.

Deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who was briefly at the summit dinner, conveyed to journalists the Indian position and the UN Secretary General’s case, but declined any elaboration on differences saying he would rather not speak for other nations.

It was the Italian premier Enrico Letta who offered assured word that the G 20 summit dinner had remained cold to consensus. “We have just finished dinner,” Letta said late last night, “And divisions on Syria were confirmed.”

Lateral voices filtering in to the summit halls seemed to point to opinion mounting against military action in Syria. Prominent among them was Pope Francis, who condemned the loss of lives and “world inaction” in the face of use of chemical weapons in Syria but held out against military strikes. In a public letter to G 20 leaders, the Pope said, “To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution…Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”

The BRICS nations and the European Union too have joined the anti-strike advocacy. Part of their concerns are guided by the adverse consequences of unilateral US militarism, part of it also stems from economic worries. A military strike, and its unpredictable spillover, could well push up global oil and gas prices and worsen the economic downturn.

But it remains moot if any of that will impact the US decision. There is little thus far in Strelna that would suggest the Americans have been moved to reconsider their stated determination to conduct disciplinary missile strikes. For all their sparkle, the fireworks over the Peterhof Palace, summer residence of the bygone czars, may have brought little cheer to the G 20 table.


St Petersburg

Strelna: A War and A Quarrel

The US brought the tremors of a distant war to this picturesque Baltic islet this today and Indian sails lay a little knocked of wind as New Delhi’s effort to build consensus with BRICS leaders against US liquidity withdrawals floundered. Three BRICS nations — Russia, China and South Africa — virtually vacated India’s concerns on adverse spillover effects of the US economic policies saying the problems were for New Delhi to handle, not for the collective.

US President Barack Obama has arrived here holding the world to an obligation on Syrian strikes several big nations gathered here are unwilling to undertake. “My credibility is not on the line, the world’s credibility on the line…the world had set the red lines when 98 percent of the nations condemn the use of chemical weapons.”


Half his campaign in the US Congress won with the Senate’s endorsement, Obama is now at hair’s breadth distance from pressing the button on Syria. Obama’s unyielding host, President Vladimir Putin, appears to be gritting harder at his jaws. “Any unilateral military action against Syria will be deemed and act of aggression,” he warned just before he welcomed G20 leaders at the majestic entrance to the Konstantinovsky Palace this afternoon, “There is no evidence they used chemical weapons.”

War rumbles are new to the G 20 forum, purely economic of makeup, but with Obama and Putin stepping onto the same stage, it was bound to shake. Bilateral atmospherics have been tense coming into this summit. The US underlined Obama did not intend meeting Putin one-on-one on the sidelines, an almost routine event at such multilaterals. The Russians made it clear they were going to leverage their status as the G 20 hosts to signpost their opposition to US brinkmanship over Syria.

The only significant sideline that did unfold today was a mini-summit of BRICS leaders, where India failed to rally support for its call to restraint on capital flow volatility triggered mainly by the US. India claimed that BRICS leaders had “reiterated concerns expressed at the Durban Summit in March regarding the unintended negative spillovers of unconventional monetary policies of certain developed economies”.

The claim found no consonance in individual statements emerging from leaders of some other BRICS member states, who seemed to be saying that India’s economic difficulties were essentially her own and she should take steps to tackle them.

Reuters quoted the Chinese Vice Premier Zhu Guagyao as saying, “We see temporary difficulties of some BRICS countries, mainly as difficulties in terms of international balance of payments…the policy response to such difficulties include increasing interest rates and devaluing currencies.”

The Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak  appeared to brush aside the Indian effort to rally consensus saying the issues raised amounted to “individual problems not concerning BRICS as a whole.” The South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, was downright dismissive: “We don’t know what the proposal is, this is India’s initiative to resolve India’s issues,” he was quoted as saying.

Asked whether discordant BRICS voices meant India lay isolated in its concerns over the negative impact of US monetary policies, foreign secretary Sujata Singh said: “I can only tell you what I heard and I heard all (BRICS) leaders expressing concern on unconventional monetary policies. Our official release says concerns were reiterated by BRICS leaders, it is a common position.”

Setting the stage for St Petersburg, India had raised the pitch to secure wider agreement between emerging economies on speaking out against unconventional monetary policies. Economic Affairs secretary Arvind Mayaram had expressed the hope India’s position will find traction among BRICS and G20 nations and said, “There is no reason why our voice should not be heard. I do believe if our voices are strong and clear, we will be heard.”

The Indian reluctance to accept lack of consensus among BRICS notwithstanding, different voices emerging from the platform may well have belied Mayaram’s optimism. The Indian contingent remains optimistic, however, on being able to lobby G 20 nations more effectively. “Wait to hear what emerges from the G 20 on the level of international cooperation among emerging economies on the adverse impact of unconventional monetary policies,” an official said, “The different voices could be misleading because their contexts they are responding to may be different.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself reiterated his fears adverse impacts, telling G20 leaders at the commencement of the summit, “The world economy is not in good shape.  There is some good news of a strengthening of growth in some industrialised countries, but it is not broad based…     The G 20 is the premier international forum for discussing international economic issues. I think we need to reflect on why we are having less success in restoring global growth than we had hoped.”

Global economic corrections in the part of developed nations isn’t a battle he is giving up on easily. His intended audience, though, may be engrossed on the grim prospect of a more immediate battle. It is unlikely Obama and Putin will part from Strelna agreed on Syria.

2013, Reportage, St Petersburg, Telegraph Calcutta

St Petersburg, Sideline to Syria

St. Petersburg, Sept 4: Here we are for a high-table summit on the chilly sidelines of Syria, nosed into a toxic cumulus of war dragged to economic summitry. Up by the Baltic to mend global purse holes, but riveted on the pirouette of hostilities 3000 miles south in the Middle East that could blow those holes bigger.

Chance would be a fine thing if the G20 stage, set up at the offshore palace isle of Strelna, isn’t bleached by the eyeball-to-eyeball between host Vladimir Putin of Russia and the most powerful of his arriving guests, US President Barack Obama. A dare flames away between the two; Obama bent on a disciplinary strike on Damascus, Putin girded to prevent that happening.

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There’s more that strains the two men than just the causes and consequences of the deathly spew of sarin gas in Syria. There is also the ice over a certain Mr Edward Snowden, spy turned whistleblower who the US wants for national security offences and who Russia has provided shelter and protection. Obama scrapped a scheduled state visit to Moscow last month, enraged over Putin’s hospitality to the American absconder; he’s come to St Petersburg only because it’s a multilateral. Never mind that poor bilateral atmospherics between the Cold War Big Two could sour it for the rest of the conference table.

Not for any lack of trying by the subalterns of the G 20, though. For all the war drum decibels booming in the Summit halls, there is a cacophony for corrections seeking to be heard. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might well be lead tenor of that set. “Though there are encouraging signs of growth in industralised countries, there is also a slowdown in emerging economies which are facing the adverse impact of significant capital outflows,” Singh said setting out for the G 20 this morning, “I will emphasize in St Petersburg the need for an orderly exit from the unconventional monetary policies being pursued by the developed world so as to avoid damaging the growth prospects of the developing world.”

Decoded, “unconventional monetary policies pursued by the developed world” essentially means huge capital withdrawals by the United States into its own economy and markets. So, though the Prime Minister and his government chose not to collar Washington by name, plaint and plea both addressed to the Obama administration: follow your recovery path, but don’t push us back in the process.

Prime Minister Singh referred to “several reform measures to stabilize the rupee and create an investor-friendly environment” but sought a “stable and supportive external environment” to sustain the Indian effort.

Economic Affairs secretary Arvind Mayaram, who spoke to journalists en route to St Petersburg, also flagged Indian concerns over the “spillover impact” of substantive capital withdrawals by the US. “We hope to raise the issue with other nations at the summit and arrive at a consensus on matters such as enhancing the resource base for emerging economies and underlining the need for infrastructure investment to impact growth impulses,” Mayaram said.

Two areas seemed to trouble him: the likelihood of a spurt in international oil prices, and the liquidity pullout by developed nations. “We have to raise this concern strongly and I do not believe that if our voices are strong we will not be heard,” Mayaram said.

Asked whether India hadn’t itself partly to blame because of its laggardly progress on structural reforms, Mayaram countered: “I don’t believe it is correct to say structural reforms have not taken place in the recent past. I can list them, it is a long list, it is a pathbreaking list of reforms.”

For a senior official headed to conference sessions where the discourse is likely to be dominated by concern, if not pessimism, Mayaram was oddly bullish of posture. “We do not require any drastic measures,” he said to a suggestion that the government might have to resort to dire-strait steps, “We can bring the situation under control.”

He flew in the face of a threatened downgrade by Standard & Poor’s, saying he had “credible numbers” to contest the ratings agency’s grim forecast: a nine percent expansion in the sowing area has raised the prospect of a bumper crop and a one percentage point spike to GDP growth; the impact of project approvals worth US$ 30 billion will soon begin to kick in; first quarter FDI inflows stand at US$ nine billion compared to US$ five billion over the same period next year; the rein on fiscal deficit (4.8 percent) and current account deficit (3.7 percent) will be held tight. “I don’t understand what the case for downgrading us is? And where do they get this 33 percent downgrade prospect figure?” Mayaram wondered. Then, as if to put down S&P’s own standings, he acidly added, “Unless, of course, they want to downgrade the whole world because the slowdown is global.”

Brave words from a finance man speaking on the back of a shaky Rupee, plunging markets and spiraling prices. But we were 40,000 feet up in rarefied air aboard AI 1 when Mayaram proclaimed the prospects on Indian economy robust and raring for leap. Loftiness probably comes easy at such heights.

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Manmohan Singh: From Home Truths to Foreign Fancies

New Delhi, Sept 3: Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh has signalled a sabbatical from a long season of domestic picket-fencing and is set to swivel focus on foreign policy ventures whose centrepiece remains the elusive search for a trust breakthrough with Pakistan.

Cleaving off from the extended, and often turbulent, monsoon session of Parliament, Singh is set to take a recess from public engagement on domestic disquiet over a range of issues from corruption to the economic slide, leaving the battling for his party and ministerial colleagues to do.






When Singh departs for St. Petersburg tomorrow to summit with G20 leaders, the Prime Minister will be embarking on a hectic, though he’d hope less exacting, eight-week international schedule that will take him from the United States in the west to Brunei in the south-east with Moscow midway. Continue reading “Manmohan Singh: From Home Truths to Foreign Fancies”