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Anand Sharma: Trading on self-confidence

By Rituparna Bhuyan in New Delhi
June 19, 2009 10:12 IST
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After Industry and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma's first press conference, someone remarked, "He knows how to handle the media. Let's hope he handles the ministry with the same skill."

Twenty-odd days later, he had an answer of sorts when the 56-year-old industry and commerce minister told an international news agency that the "Doha impasse had been broken," ahead of a visit to Washington  

When reporters rushed to Udyog Bhavan to find out more about this breakthrough in world trade talks, which have been all but stalled owing to strong differences on many issues, trade bureaucrats had nothing to offer on how exactly the impasse had been broken.

Sharma himself was not around to elaborate. He was making his inaugural trip as commerce minister to Washington, to meet trade officials in the Obama administration. The new commerce secretary, Rahul Khullar, India's chief negotiator at WTO, did not accompany the minister.

Sharma faces several challenges in his new assignment. He succeeds the redoubtable Kamal Nath, who had made tough negotiating positions his trademark, and whose departure from Udyog Bhavan caused relief in many trade negotiating rooms around the world. Indeed, many countries have blamed India for the Doha Round's failure so far, a viewpoint not shared by Indian industry which has backed the country's stance.

Sharma's style is certainly softer and more conciliatory, and the country waits to see whether he is also conciliatory when it comes to substance. Indeed, the question is whether his appointment is a signal that the government wants to adopt a softer line in the trade talks.

Other challenges await Sharma.

Kamal Nath pushed through the policy on special economic zones in the face of strong opposition from the finance ministry; but the SEZs are not taking off. Nath also piloted the new policy on foreign direct investment in the last weeks of the first UPA government, which is now facing questions from Reserve Bank and the finance ministry.

Sharma will have to bat for his ministry on these and other issues. Then there is the mother of all issues, the continuing fall in exports.

Sharma's appointment in place of Kamal Nath in such a critical ministry was received with more surprise than was warranted; in part, the surprise may have been because many expected had him to get information and broadcasting, which he had handled well when it was given to him as an additional charge for a few months (in addition to being the junior minister in external affairs).

He has been for years a trusted person for the Congress leadership, and in some ways part of the in-crowd in the party. He is both suave and well-read, and has been around for a long time, having been a member of the Rajya Sabha since 1984. At 31, he was at the time one of the youngest members of the upper house.

His Congress roots can be traced back even earlier, to 1971, when he started out as a student leader and a founding member of the National Student's Union of India. Sixteen years later, he acquired his first exposure to international diplomacy when he organised an international conference on apartheid in his capacity as president of the Indian Youth Congress.

Two African countries -- Ghana and Ivory Coast -- have awarded him their highest civilian honours for his contribution towards promoting bilateral relations with India. His room in Udyog Bhavan also has a photograph of himself with Nelson Mandela. Sharma's wife, Xenobia, is South African.

But the route to success in Udyog Bhavan does not lie through Africa; for that, Sharma will have to deal with people in the capitals of the western and eastern worlds.

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Rituparna Bhuyan in New Delhi
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