July 09, 2020
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Estranged On Paper

South Africa's stand on nukes introduces an irritant in India's attempt to forge post-Cold War ties

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Estranged On Paper

WHEN Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee steps off the plane in South Africa for the 12th summit of the nonaligned countries, there will be a sense of poetic justice. A Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit—a product of the end of colonialism—will finally be hosted by a country that under the leadership of one of the greatest figures of all time, Nelson Mandela, fought off decades of white imperialism. But Vajpayee is bound to have mixed emotions because India's relations with this brave new world are already showing signs of discord.

 A recent problem, says a South Block source, has been the circulation of a draft by South Africa which "should have been similar to the one produced at a high-level preparatory meeting in Cartagena a few months ago (which was more in tune with the Indian view), but was completely at variance with it". The source explains there had been changes in nuances on economic and nuclear issues. Some officials believe that India's nuclear tests were criticised in this document which is not available to the public. However, much of the draft was rejected and a new one more in tune with the Cartagena declaration is now in circulation.

Analysts say part of the mission of the prime minister's principal secretary Brajesh Mishra (who was recently sent to South Africa) had been to try and get the draft modified. However, even in the newly amended draft the South Africans have suggested a recommendation which speaks of the re-emergence of the nuclear arms race and urges all "nuclear weapon capable states" to refrain from "weaponising this capability and to desist from placing them on the delivery systems". This is clearly aimed at India and Pakistan. But some Indian officials insist that too much emphasis is being given to a draft which will go through many changes before becoming a NAM document.

India is also concerned that South Africa will use the summit to push for a conflict resolution mechanism to solve differences between member countries. If approved, Pakistan is almost bound to use the mechanism to push forward its Kashmir agenda.

But not surprisingly, India's new nuclear status is one of the biggest points of contention with South Africa. "Mandela was deeply anguished that India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, had tested five devices in May this year," says Hari Sharan Chhabra, an Africa expert. However South Africa, which voluntarily gave up its small nuclear arsenal prior to the transition of power from the white regime to the presidentship of Mandela, made only a muted official statement critical of the tests. "They understand our point of view, even if they do not agree with it," says an MEA official. But not enough, others note.

South Africa, which is in the running for a permanent seat on the Security Council, has signed the CTBT and NPT and is expected to show India little sympathy for its Pokhran tests. "There is a concern that the upcoming summit might be hijacked by discussions about the NPT rather than discussions about total global disarmament," says the MEA source. This would be in keeping with western sentiments on maintaining the present nuclear status quo of the five declared N-powers.

In fact, India's fears are not groundless. At the Cartagena summit in 1995, the non-aligned countries had come up with a document that called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons within a fixed timeframe. But South Africa blocked its admission into the UN that same year, and because NAM declarations are based on consensus rather than a vote it was not presented as a NAM initiative.

ON the other hand it is this "consensus", a mantra repeated over and over by the MEA,which will save India, a founder of the NAM, from being openly embarrassed in Durban. "Many African countries which form almost 50 per cent of NAM feel that the nuclear tests in the subcontinent have given them a new strength...that they can no longer be dominated by the US. They would hardly be likely to criticise India," says Vijay Gupta, professor for West Asian and African studies at JNU. There is also an expectation that Mandela's diplomacy will help to carry India through. "India is a founder member. You can't trifle with us, our views are treated with some gravity," says an MEA official.

That may be just wishful thinking. And as NAM chairman, South Africa has the power to move plans of action in a certain direction. "Although there is no system of voting in this grouping, powers of persuasion should not be underestimated," comments Kanti Bajpai of JNU. The fact that the US will be a guest at the Durban summit has not gone unnoticed. But, as Bajpai adds, "whatever South Africa might try to do, NAM has already recorded a reaction (at Cartagena)."

MEA sources worry that the national interest of South Africa continues to be linked with those of the previous white regime. "We will have to see whether their traditional national position (on non-proliferation) will be translated into a hardline position against India...if so, we will be disappointed," says a source. "We want them to be proactive rather than someone we have to lobby with." India would like to see a South Africa less influenced by the West and more in tune with the concerns of the developing world. That is easier said than done. It is still a babe in the woods of democracy with a severely disadvantaged black community that makes up 90 per cent of the population. The media, the economy and the armed forces and much of the bureaucracy are still controlled by educated whites.

India views the post-Cold War period, with the emergence of new regional groupings and globalisation, as the severest test for the non-alignment cause. An Indian official believes the last decade has been a wasted one for the movement. Many NAM members are now in favour of setting up an institutional mechanism to help in multilateral economic negotiations with groups such as the WTO. Although the new South African leadership has suggested redefining NAM's agenda in the context of new changes in international relations, Indian officials doubt that the South African leadership can give it a new, purposeful direction, which it so badly needs. "They lack experience," says one official somewhat condescendingly.

There are apprehensions in New Delhi that the ongoing saga of the quick-change Indian high commissioners has the potential to ruffle meetings at the bilateral level as well. "In 1994 we sent Madhav Mangalmurthi who was about to retire and did nothing but play golf...he made no contacts and hardly even went to the office," says Africa expert Chhabra. After a brief gap, Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma's grandson, was sent; but after less than two years he was recalled. More recently India sent Gandhian L.C. Jain. "While South Africa is looking to the new millennium, we are looking backwards. As the South Africans see it we are turning our backs to the strategic partnership the two countries have fostered," comments an MEA official. Adds Chhabra: "There is a feeling that India takes South Africa too casually."

Having said that, all is not woe. NAM is in favour of sending a fact-finding mission to Sudan to examine the recent US attacks on a pharmaceutical factory, a proposal India supports. "It seems reasonable because the airstrikes do raise serious questions of sovereignty, the fact that they could have been based on incorrect information," says an Indian official.

 But the varied priorities are more than clear. And while most of the non-aligned countries will be concerned with creating a more viable NAM, India should perhaps be more concerned that it does not lose the few friends it has.

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