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Five days away from the news cycle

Last updated on: June 08, 2009 18:00 IST
A cruise is an expensive way of doing nothing. It also is imprisonment with constant fear of drowning. And yet, people of all hues, shapes and sizes spend their or their children's hard earned money on the cruises that go nowhere.

In my own case, the trip was to Bermuda, a bit of the last vestige of British imperialism and right back to New Jersey. For lack of anything better to do, we participated in various activities, ranging from mini golf to rock climbing. But eating and drinking were the main activities.

For me, a five day vacation, after many years, from the newspaper, the Internet, the phone and the fax was an experiment in itself. The world, I knew, would take care of itself without my being a participant in its affairs. And it did.

But I was bewildered by all that happened in the five days, during which I just watched the sea go by, most of the time deceptively placidly, but occasionally shaking the massive metallic marvel and carrying us off our feet. I felt like Rip Van Winkle, who could not recognise the world he had woken up into.

The making of a brand new Indian Cabinet was perhaps the event of the week in Delhi. As we sailed off, some ministers were already sworn in, but Delhi appeared like a huge bazaar, where newly elected representatives of the people were haggling for the best deals for themselves.

People must have been on live television, visiting 10, Janpath and 7, Race Course Road to make their claims. Even with a massive mandate, the prime minister was not able to resist the pressure of his allies. Karunanidhi had withdrawn to his den in Chennai, threatening not to join the Cabinet, unless his son, daughter, nephew and other cronies were not taken in.

The prime minister could not get rid of even masters of corruption in his old Cabinet, I discovered. Politics is the art of the impossible, we should say.

The biggest surprise was the allocation of external affairs to S M Krishna, though his name was on many lips even before Pranab Mukherjee was appointed minister of external affairs. The appointment was reminiscent of P V Narasimha Rao's appointment as external affairs minister in 1980.

Rao himself could not find the logic and he shared his surprise with G K Reddy, the veteran journalist. He would have preferred an economic ministry, Rao said to Reddy. Reddy was ready with his advice. He said that Rao should not ask for a change, because Indira Gandhi would immediately conclude that Rao was out to make money!

Rao took the advice and did not ask for a change. The rest is history. But a similar experiment with Madhavsinh Solanki was an unmitigated disaster. The 'scholarly' minister had not heard of the NPT when he took over as the external affairs minister of India!

Krishna is sure to be a success with his US education and flair for public speaking and zest for life even at 77. His tennis prowess is known, but many may not know that one of his hobbies is designing of clothes. I remember discussing this hobby with him when he came to the UN as a delegate in the eighties. He may well turn out to be the best dressed external affairs minister we ever had.

Shashi Tharoor as one of the junior ministers in the foreign office was logical, but for that very reason, there were doubts whether it would happen. Neither Natwar Singh nor K R Narayanan was given the external affairs portfolio when they first became ministers. One was in chemicals and the other in science and technology before they eventually moved into external affairs.

For Tharoor, it will be a new experience as he was never part of the Indian establishment before. But his experience of dealing with conflicting interests and finding a consensus at the UN will stand him in good stead when he deals with policy.

Ministers of state in the ministry of external affairs are allotted certain regions and administrative responsibilities, but much will depend on the inclination of the minister to make use of them.

They are normally burdened with protocol and Parliament work, leaving little time for policy. Some ministers of state like Natwar Singh and Salman Khurshid have been successful in shaping policy.

Another nuclear test by North Korea did not surprise me. They have been testing the waters ever since President Obama took charge. He was by no means soft with words when North Korea carried out a missile test, but there was nothing in his reaction which indicated zero tolerance. Another resolution from the Security Council, duly moderated by China, was not going to deter North Korea. The day is not far when Japan and South Korea break their nuclear virginity.

For India, the North Korean test is a direct threat because of its linkages to Pakistan and China. We have been treating the North Korean case as a distant phenomenon, leaving it to the Americans and others to deal with North Korea. I remember asking Bob Einhorn, the US disarmament wizard, back in 1998 why the US came down on India like a ton of bricks and rushed to North Korea with incentive packages. He said each case was different, but did not elaborate.

We abstained on the North Korea issue at the IAEA on the ground that we were not members of the NPT and it was not for us to sit in judgment over NPT violations. Now that we are in the mainstream in the IAEA, the time has come for us to take a more aggressive stand on North Korea.

President Obama made two significant appointments while I was at sea. Sonia Sotomayor is no stranger to the judicial system in the US and she has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. But there is suspicion that the President Obama is overplaying the minority card in choosing the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court.

Obviously, President Obama anticipates trouble in her confirmation and hence the emphasis on her humble background and stellar reputation. Some utterances by her of the role of the judiciary have been dug out to bury her in the confirmation process. But President Obama has high stakes in her confirmation and he will do what he can to get the nomination through in the Senate.

US Congressman Tim Roemer's appointment as the next ambassador to India was a surprise when it was first reported. President Obama could well have chosen an old India hand, who is universally respected in India, Karl Inderfurth. Perhaps Roemer got the job because he supported Obama in the early stages against Hillary Clinton, while Inderfurth was seen as a Clinton protege. Old wounds seem to remain open even after the grand reconciliation. But Inderfurth is too good a diplomat to remain a professor at George Washington University.

Roemer was a member of the 9/11 Commission and has a strong commitment to fight against terror.

I am glad I am back in the world of Gmail, Twitter and Facebook, because, without them, one remains lonely in the most crowded of places. Social interaction is no more confined to cocktail parties and dinners, certainly not to cruises at this time of recession. But I must say there was no sign of recession on the Explorer of the Seas.

All the available 3,500 seats were taken and there was no dearth of food or wine. People readily signed up for expensive activities and indulged in luxuries without looking at the stockmarket. And as we stepped out, there were more signs of recovery, at least in India.

I heaved a sigh of relief that nothing earth shaking had happened in the five days of news blackout. But a massive earthquake, measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck the Caribbean near Honduras, not far from where we were and tsunami warnings were issued just as we were docking in New Jersey.

We sent up a prayer for those who were boarding the ship for its next sailing and thanked our stars that we were on terra firma. We had a slight tremour in our feet for the next few days, but we were not sure whether it was the quake or just a hangover.

Former Indian diplomat T P Sreenivasan is a visiting fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

T P Sreenivasan