South Asia

India is courted by trade partners across the world

Dmitry Medvedev and Manmohan Singh (21 December 2010)
Image caption Russia's president is the last of a string of world leaders who have held talks with Mr Singh

India is like a bride being wooed by many suitors. That's the description used for this country of a billion and more by Alexander Kadakin, Russia's ambassador to India, at a briefing in Delhi's diplomatic enclave last week.

"Russia is India's sister and wants the best possible bridegroom for India," Mr Kadakin, who has spent 20 years in Delhi as a diplomat and speaks fluent Hindi, said with a straight face.

His message was not lost on a country that has hosted heads of government and state from all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, beginning with British Prime Minister David Cameron's visit in July.

In the last 45 days alone, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has issued joint statements with US President Barack Obama (8 November), French President Nicolas Sarkozy (6 December), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (16 December) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (21 December).

In between, Mr Singh has found time to visit Japan and Germany this year, signalling India's engagement with all the major economies of the world.

From President Obama announcing unexpected support for India's case for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to Mr Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni enjoying a quiet moment at the Taj Mahal, the visits are not stopping.

Even China wants India to play a larger role on the world stage, if the formal statements emanating from Mr Wen are to be believed as the two countries grapple with what is possibly the largest unresolved land border dispute in the world.

Achievement

China is India's largest trading partner - with two-way trade expected to touch $60bn (£39bn) in 2010.

David Cameron's strong anti-Pakistan statements made from Indian soil were widely welcomed in Delhi - especially by the hawkish sections of the country's intelligentsia.

The British balancing act between India and Pakistan had finally ended, they felt.

Image caption Wen Jiabao (right) brought with him one of the largest teams of Chinese business leaders ever to visit India

In Delhi, Mr Medvedev's visit produced as many as 11 government-to-government agreements - from co-operating in conducting elections to jointly developing a fifth generation stealth aircraft (reportedly worth $35bn) to setting up a new steel plant.

Already, since India came out of international nuclear isolation in 2008, the country has been buying nuclear fuel not just from Russia but from France as well.

Its nuclear plants are producing more electricity than ever before thanks to the imported nuclear fuel.

And, if more evidence were needed, India stands ready to join the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG), the exclusive club that governs the world's nuclear commerce, as a full member.

For a country that was in the nuclear doghouse for decades, entering the NSG will be no mean achievement.

"These visits are growing evidence of the importance of India," Amitabh Matoo, Professor of International Relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the BBC.

Economic opportunities

According to Mr Matoo, India is not just seen as a large market but also as a source of investment for the rest of the world, including the developing economies.

"You have to look at all these visits with different prisms. But Barack Obama's visit stands out. Like for the rest of the world, India's relationship with the United States is the most important," he added.

In a sign that a developing world country like India could also present an economic opportunity, President Obama sold his trip to Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi as a mission to boost US exports and create jobs.

Rajiv Sikri, a former secretary in India's foreign ministry, believes that all these visits happening in a matter of months are a bit of a coincidence.

"But the signal is clear: people are looking for business," Mr Sikri told the BBC.

Image caption President Obama said the Indian market could help boost US exports

"And, of course, it is good for India's global profile," the former diplomat said.

All these visits, however, come at a trying time for Mr Singh and his coalition government, which has been at the centre of all types of corruption allegations - from selling spectrum for mobile telephony cheaply, to bribery while conducting the Commonwealth Games.

An unrelenting opposition has paralysed the functioning of parliament, forcing the Prime Minister to say on Monday that he was ready to go before a parliamentary committee that was looking into the spectrum sale.

It's not enough, analysts believe, that Mr Singh is personally above reproach.

What about the allegations against ministers in his own government? Does he have enough control on their dealings with corporate India?

For a coalition that came to power promising to empower the poor, an estimated loss of $40bn from the cheap sale of mobile telephony spectrum is not only embarrassing. It leads to inevitable questions of how many children the money could have put in school or how many hospitals it could have built.

For long, India has tolerated corruption - something that went hand-in-hand with its impressive economic growth. The country is still to develop a culture where the corrupt are actually convicted.

For India's economic story to be an enduring one, its internal processes must be transparent - not just for the sake of its own people, but as a destination for overseas investment.

The outside world will be watching to see how India manages its many paradoxes and challenges.

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