Insights into India’s approach to the WTO, Third World coalitions and foreign policy

Shamnad’s recent post reminded me of an academic paper by Andrew Hurrell and Amrita Narlikar, titled “A New Politics of Confrontation: Developing Countries at Cancun and Beyond”. In this piece, Hurrell and Narlikar contest some of the conventional wisdom in International Relations Theory about how and why developing countries behave as they do in contemporary times. Hurrell and Narlikar argue that the recent confrontational politics at the WTO (as exemplified by the clashes at Cancun in Sep 2003) need to be understood in terms of a complex range of adaptive strategies pursued by developing nations. They assert that unlike the call for a New International Economic Order by developing nations in the 60s and 70s, the present challenge has not advanced a vision of an alternative development, and has instead demanded a change within the regime rather than a radical restructuring. They offer a number of explanations for the pursuit of such a strategy by developing nations, focusing primarily on India and Brazil. In so doing, they offer a number of insights into how decision-makers in both nations come to their final stances on foreign policy, WTO diplomacy, attitudes towards free trade, etc. Though the piece as a whole (which appears to be an extract from a longer research paper) is extremely interesting, I focus here on certain observations they make about India.

In their section focusing on how India conducts its WTO diplomacy, Hurrell and Narlikar begin with the perception which Shamnad referred to at the end of his post, by noting:

“Along with Brazil, India is a country that has long been seen as among the most proficient in WTO diplomacy. Indian commitment to Third World-ist coalitions of resistance in the WTO has continued even after it began its programme of economic liberalization in 1991 and despite frequent instances of complete isolation even after other coalition members have defected. The unbroken proficiency and leadership of the Indian delegation in Geneva has invited acknowledgement from many other developing country delegations; in the words of one African country, ‘’India is the voice of the voiceless in the WTO’.’”

Hurrell and Narlikar then go on to making some critical observations about how WTO policy is actually made within India. They note that despite India’s democratic credentials, which would lead to the belief that the decision-making process is transparent and enables consultations with interested groups, the actual policy-making process is very insular. They note that the process is Geneva-based, rather than closely connected with the capital, even though the delegation is dominated by members from the Ministry of Commerce. They then make this important observation about the “serious lack of awareness of WTO issues” within India in general:

“Even while Indian universities have produced some of the leading economists in the world, very few universities focus on international economics and international political economy, let alone international trade law or WTO law. A few think-tanks and specialized institutes in economics (such as Indian Institute of Foreign Trade – IIFT and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations – ICRIER) conduct studies on some specialized sectors -– some of them commissioned by the government -– but these are few and scarcely provide the knowledge necessary to keep an active check on the negotiation process. In the case of NGOs, the picture is even gloomier. Few are able to engage proactively and constructively in debates relating directly to the technical issues covered by WTO negotiations (with some notable exceptions such as the Consumer Unity and Trust Society-– CUTS). The Ministry of Commerce holds occasional seminars to engage with civil society, but chooses whom to invite in these forums and whom to exclude.”

This strikes me as being very true, and I believe this aspect needs to be emphasised. India’s reputation for WTO diplomacy should not prevent resources being poured into this vital area.
Later on in the paper, Hurrell and Narlikar comment upon how India’s trade policy and foreign policy often seem at odds with each other, and explore the influence of the two establishments being manned by people from differing backgrounds – the IAS and the IFS respectively. There are many other interesting insights, including their assertion that despite having adopted policies of liberalisation, “there continues to be a general suspicion of liberalisation” within India.

In this important paper, Hurrell and Narlikar offer telling glimpses into an area which is largely shut from the public domain. Those with an interest in these issues will, I am sure, benefit from a reading of this paper, even if they disagree with particulars of their argument or with its orientation.

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