India will host an informal ministerial meeting of major World Trade Organisation participants next week,preceded by an official-level meeting. Informal or not,these are not straightforward events; getting more than 100 countries together in New Delhi to talk about continuing hurdles to a freer and fairer international trading system is a feat of organisation and persuasion of which the commerce ministry should be proud. And the energy that India was willing to invest in setting the stage sends out a good signal: that India is willing to put in a bit of effort to breathe new life into the Doha process,which has been stalled since talks broke down a year ago.
But getting people in a room is not enough. India will have to be willing,and be seen to be willing,to do more. There are two reasons for this. The first is perceptions: unfairly or not,the idea has taken root and even been allowed to grow that Indias negotiators were instrumental in the trade talks last year ending without coming to a consensus. These columns have in the past delineated how such a view is founded on a distorted reading of the facts but regardless of the right or wrong of those arguments,India has to at all costs avoid being seen as a spoiler in multilateral negotiations. India seeks to play an enhanced role in international affairs,one commensurate with its size and its brainpower. But the role will also be commensurate with its perceived ability to engender solutions. Getting the people in the room is a good start,but only a start; the commerce ministry now has to think about how to be seen as taking the lead in getting them to solve their problems.
The second reason is reality. The unvarnished truth is that,of all the major economies,it is likely that India has the most to benefit from a successful conclusion to the Doha round,and the most to lose if it is scrapped. Indias trade has vast room to grow; and,unlike other large economies,it doesnt have the kind of leverage that gets itself automatically beneficial terms in bilateral or regional trade deals. (Which are,in any case,frequently trade-distorting rather than trade-growing.) So it will benefit most. And if the Doha round which privileges trade-as-development-mechanism is scrapped,we might soon be in a world in which the ruling paradigms are trade-as-climate-change-enforcer or trade-as-playing-field-leveller. Neither is good for India. And so Indias negotiators need to be not just seen taking the lead in looking for
a reasonable solution but also actually finding one.