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Warm sentiments and hot air in a mid-summer engagement

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Jet-setting ministers are taking India's dialogue with other nations to new levels, but concrete action remains tardy.

Back in the days when foreign trips were rare for Indians, the joke was that come high summer, Indian politicians and officials flew away like migratory birds to cooler western climes on some pretext. Bilateral meetings and committee tours were arranged in Washington, London, Paris, etc for ministers, MPs, and officials to escape the worse of Indian heat.

Times have changed. These days there genuinely is so much on the plate between India and a host of developed countries that travels are fast, frequent, furious, and hardly furtive. There is much work to be done. Foreign capitals aren't some exotic locales anymore. Most Indian government visitors barely get to do anything outside their meetings. Complaints of jet lag, exhaustion, and overwork are being heard these days.

Take the US-India scenario that's unfolding. Just two weeks after the strategic dialogue led by external affairs minister S M Krishna, a group of ministers and officials is in Washington DC again for more talks on finance, trade, commerce, science etc. Two of the group, Prithviraj Chauhan and Montek Singh Ahluwalia are returning after barely ten days.

Krishna himself has jetted around so much that he may soon run out of gifts to exchange with Hillary Clinton, who he has met some half-dozen times in the past year. Anand Sharma, in Washington mid-week, and headed to Paris and London in search of more trade and investment, complained that he is constantly jetlagged.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is off to Toronto for the G-20 where he will have his fifth meeting with Barack Obama in less than a year and a half since they both took office. They have already met in London, Pittsburgh, Washington DC (twice) and they will possibly meet a couple of times more before the US President arrives in India on a state visit in November. This is surely a record for the most sustained engagement between the chief executives of the two countries.

To those who wonder whether all the to-ing and fro-ing is producing anything more than warm sentiments (or hot air, according to some critics), there is the simple metric of trade between the two countries, which has doubled in the last five years. US and China are duking it out to be India's biggest trading partner, although New Delhi ranks way down in their list of partners.

Can't some of this dialoguing be done electronically through teleconferences, you want to ask. Well, personal contact is important, they will tell you. Besides, weren't you cribbing in a previous column that Indian ministerial representation at a strategic dialogue earlier this month was too thin? True. One is still mystified though at why the dialogue was split into two engagements a fortnight apart instead of going full-court press like Beijing did.

Nothing gets the back of the Indian establishment up like being compared unfavourably to the Chinese though. But after watching China and India conduct their business with the US over several years, it's the consensus opinion of the hack pack in Washington DC that while Beijing has mastered the art of doing business with the US (despite many differences), New Delhi is still learning the ropes. There's still too much talk and too little action.

Few things are more illustrative of Indian inertia than this rotten old chestnut that New Delhi's ministers and mandarins pull out in every speech on trade and commerce - that India is among the world's largest producers of fruits and vegetables, and 30-40 per cent of our output goes waste. Excuse me, but we've been moaning about this for 22 years from the time Rajiv Gandhi set up the Ministry of Food Processing in 1988, your columnist asked a cabinet minister recently;what's been done?

It wasn't a Ministry, it was only a department, he admonished me;besides you are ignoring the fact that our economy has doubled and trebled and we have done that and this and yada yada yada. It was a bullying - and bullheaded - response, and one wearily held back from pointing out it did not answer the question why 30-40 per cent of produce was still going waste after 22 years.

And oh, for the record, the ministry was established in 1988 and Jagdish Tytler was the first minister.

But that's so typical of the Indian response. Again, the hack-pack consensus is that with rare exceptions, we seldom hear an Indian speech here that does not sound vain, boastful, and self-congratulatory. Not good.

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