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Protecting and promoting India's business interests abroad should be a primary concern for the MEA
The short-notice eviction of the GMR group from the operation of Male's international airport, by a government that owes its international legitimacy to quick and decisive Indian support after the ouster of the previous president, Mohamed Nasheed, comes as a sharp rebuff to Delhi. The Union government's response to the arbitrary decision has been inexplicably muted. Given that trouble for GMR had been brewing in the Maldives for a while, the termination of the $500 million contract is not a surprise for India. That Delhi failed to intercede and prevent the denouement, and that it has failed to respond vigorously in the aftermath, raises questions about the competence and judgement of its foreign policy mandarins. The government must review the entire episode, including the functioning of the Indian high commissioner, and the premises for abandoning Delhi's friends in the Maldives earlier.
The GMR episode is a reminder of the new challenges to India's foreign policy where its business and commercial interests are concerned. These have been attacked in the neighbourhood earlier, as when GMR and Dabur were targeted by the Maoists in Nepal. But the Maldives attack comes from its government, against a backdrop of rising Chinese competition. More than 40 per cent of India's GDP today is linked to trade — India is vitally dependent on imported natural resources, like energy and minerals, and on export markets. Indian business is investing billions of dollars abroad, largely at its own risk, with little support from the MEA. It is time the MEA sheds its old aloofness and reserve and actively speaks up for Indian business interests abroad. Promoting and protecting such interests should be one of the primary functions of Indian diplomacy.
In fact, Delhi could draw lessons from how other countries have deployed heads of state and government to lobby for contracts and decisions — be it David Cameron for Vodafone, Vladimir Putin for Sistema, Jens Stoltenberg for Telenor, or Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy on the fighter deal. The GMR issue also underlines that it is in India's interests to have predictability of policies and protection of investments around the world. In the past, India has often dismissed similar arguments from international financial institutions and Western governments. With Male administering some bitter medicine, India should work with major powers and international institutions to stabilise the environment for investment protection and trade.