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Flak for the flag in Male 
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Illustration: Bhaskaran

Vladimir Putin, when he comes in December, can expect a more sympathetic hearing on the Sistema case from Manmohan and company than what he has been getting.
Moscow had been pleading with our Prime Minister's Office and the foreign office, in the name of all the MiGs, missiles, uranium cakes, cryogenic engines and Raj Kapoor movies, to save Sistema's investments from the 2G mess. So has London been, in the name of the Queen and her country, over the Vodafone retro-tax case. Our mandarins, stiffer upper lips than the Brits, have been turning a deaf ear to such lobbying, citing sovereign laws. Some even got a kick out of seeing the rulers of the dissolved empire and superpower on their knees before us.
Now we are getting a taste of our own medicine, administered by, of all people, the Maldivians, considered small change in the regional political order. Actually they are the richest per capita earners in South Asia, and they own hundreds of islands that can be leased to foreign powers to launch a thousand warships against India. They have asked the Indian company GMR, which builds and runs airports, to pack up and go. The new rulers of the Maldives, who came in through a street coup which we blessed post-facto, say the company bribed the old rulers to bag an airport development contract, the biggest foreign investment ever in that country. A presidential adviser said GMR had bribed the Indian envoy D.M. Mulay. Cheek!
The mandarins in our PMO have since been fretting, and those in the foreign office have been fuming, but the Maldivians have been turning a Nelson's eye. Not a Jenkins's ear, thank God! It would have started a war.
The Maldivian mess points to two flaws in the way we conduct our diplomacy. Our mandarins are good at Scotch-and-caviar diplomacy with which we have managed the world well. Last year we were thumping our chests, having got all the five rulers of the universe drive up Raisina Hill for photo-ops with our President and Prime Minister.
But we have been offensively ham-handed (pun intended) with sherbat-and-kebab diplomacy, required to manage our South Asian neighbourhood. We don't know whether to blow hot or blow cold with Pakistan; we go to Dhaka without doing homework in Bengal; the Nepalis call us bullies; the Lankans, on their own ego trip, no longer care for us. Now the humiliation from the Maldivians.
The other flaw is that we haven't perfected economic diplomacy in the manner the world understands it. Economic diplomacy, for us, is about signing a few MoUs and double-taxation avoidance treaties. Not for the rest of the free-trading world. Flag still follows trade, as it used to in the sailing-ship days; only the means and the meanings have changed. It is no longer about conquest, colonies, and East India Companies, but about investing the political will of Raisina Hill, along with the rupees from Dalal Street, in businesses overseas. Mulay did show the flag, but he didn't have enough to show that Delhi would back him to the masthead. The Maldivians called his bluff; he got a bad name; so did India.
Now? The Chinese may bag the deal, just as they bagged Hambantota port in Lanka, for which we didn't even bid. We will build a spartan Coast Guard air station on our Minicoy island, and watch from afar Chinese chartered jets, packed with dollar-rich tourists, landing in the new airport. That's what the Chinese had been promising the Maldivians who earn more than a quarter of their wealth from tourists.
Tailpiece: India's quietest economic diplomacy act was Vajpayee's withdrawal of the long-accorded recognition to the rebel Sahrawi Republic in Morocco. This got him into the good books of phosphorus-rich Morocco, which granted contracts to Indian phosphate companies.

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