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States’ new ‘diplomacy’: Amaravati as Singapore?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Jan 29, 2019, 12:51 am IST
Updated : Jan 29, 2019, 12:51 am IST

The 217 sq km greenfield capital city of Amaravati on the Krishna river could be another.

N. Chandrababu Naidu
 N. Chandrababu Naidu

What seems a daring new concept in foreign relations is really an old Indian strategy. But treating regions instead of nations as economic or diplomatic partners sounds like a Singaporean innovation because the “little red dot” — quoting Indonesian President B.J. Habibie’s jibe — compensates for its smallness with imaginative thinking. So I wasn’t surprised when Gopinath Pillai, the brilliant Singaporean entrepreneur who was already his country’s ambassador-at-large, also became Singapore’s special envoy to Andhra Pradesh. His involvement gives the Rs 58,000-crore project for Amaravati, the state’s new capital, a much better chance of success than Singapore’s previous mega-ventures in India.

Presumably, an appointment such as Mr Pillai’s doesn’t call for specific agrément — the term for a diplomatic representative needing the approval of the host government to which he or she is accredited. If it does, Mr Pillai’s personal standing must have overcome Indian reservations. Not all South Block mandarins were overjoyed way back in the 1990s when the Thais first mooted the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. “We don’t like these Southeast Asians playing games with our islands!” an Indian diplomat in Singapore muttered, possibly thinking of the late President Sukarno’s threat during the 1965 India-Pakistan war to seize the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone grumbled this time that Singapore was trying to annex Andhra Pradesh!

This kind of pettiness scotched Kerala’s bold plan for regional cooperation in 1993. Perhaps someone had stumbled upon an external affairs ministry file about attempts to murder Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, the dewan of the old Travancore state, who had dared to support his maharaja’s declaration of independence on June 18, 1947. Forty-six years later, Kerala’s industries minister P.K. Kunhalikutty held extensive talks with Singaporean officials and announced that Kerala would be the first Indian state to station an official there “to woo investors throughout the Asean region”. Mr Kunhalikutty was not boasting when he claimed that “setting up business in Kerala is an old European custom. Ask Vasco da Gama….”

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had told a US congressional committee that Kerala supplied teak for King Solomon’s palace. Legend has it that when Thomas the Apostle landed at the Roman staging post of Muziris in Kerala in ad 52 and founded the world’s oldest Christian church, a Jewish girl played the flute to welcome him. Cochin’s Jews, descended from refugees who fled Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of Jerusalem, launched the world’s first Jewish state. China’s 14th century Admiral Zheng He sailed several times to the Malabar coast, leaving behind the giant cantilevered fishing nets (cheena vale) still in use.

Singapore welcomed Mr Kunhalikutty’s initiative, but remembering Ramaswami Iyer, New Delhi feared that economic objectives might incite political ambition. The nervousness was born of ignorance for region-based diplomacy isn’t new for us. At the third India-Asean New Delhi business summit in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approvingly quoted Sinnappa Arasaratnam, the author of Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century, to recall that India had profited from the autonomy enjoyed by littoral states “with little interference from groups that would not have understood the needs and demands of the predominant activity of commerce”. He argued that “mutually beneficial business links” between India’s coastal states and Southeast Asia would lend meaning to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Look East policy (which responded to Lee Kuan Yew’s long-standing invitation to India to engage with Southeast Asia) and “eventually give shape to the idea of an Asian Century”.

Nevertheless, no Indian state took up the lead Kerala was forced to abandon. Yet, international interaction is not always a prerogative of sovereignty. Several Australian and Canadian states pursue their business interests in foreign capitals. Western Australia opened an office in Mumbai some years ago. Governor Qin Guangrong of China’s Yunnan province visited Kolkata in late 2008 on an aggressive trade and tourism mission directed at West Bengal, but the Kunming-Kolkata link is today popular mainly with smugglers.

Ruins of grand projects litter the India-Singapore past. The Madras Corridor would have been an exclusive manufacturing zone for Singaporean investors. Singapore Airlines’ proposed airbridge meant an all-inclusive package direct from Europe or the United States to relatively small Indian airports serving clusters of tourist destinations. Several Singapore companies wanted a bite of Bengaluru’s new international airport. The end of Indian Airlines’ monopoly encouraged SIA and Tata to set up a company in Mauritius for a Singapore$846-million joint venture domestic airline. There was talk of special export-oriented economic zones, sparkling new townships, schools, colleges, banks, and training institutes. More Indian firms would follow the Tatas and Punj Lloyd in acquiring companies in Singapore. The “pre-establishment” clause of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement signed in 2005 entitling Singapore-registered enterprises to be treated at par with Indian companies was expected to herald “a larger process of Asian integration” and attract floods of funds from abroad. Singapore would enjoy permanent middleman’s fees as bilateral trade soared to more than $50 billion by 2010.

Discussing these failed visions, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told me once: “We don’t need flagship projects.” High visibility means politicisation that feeds into the instinctive suspicion of foreigners and foreign money that India’s ultra-nationalists exploit for their own ends. The exception was the one-stop S$250-million Bangalore Information Technology Park housing international high-tech companies involved in computers, electronics and telecommunications. It is still the relationship’s principal showpiece.

The 217 sq km greenfield capital city of Amaravati on the Krishna river could be another. Gopinath Pillai’s private business activities in this country make him familiar with its strengths and sensitivities. If he can guide the Singapore consortium that is building Amaravati to live up to N. Chandrababu Naidu’s dream of a Singapore in the making, he might be able at last to realise the vision that had inspired P.V. Narasimha Rao and Lee Kuan Yew.

Tags: n. chandrababu naidu, gopinath pillai