Published: The Financial Express, November 25, 2003
By Pradeep S Mehta
“WTO is a necessary evil,” said Murasoli Maran as the commerce minister, who had acquired considerable skills on the complexity of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Certainly, he was one politician, who had begun to understand the ins and outs of the WTO system, though not all would agree with his approach to this ‘evil’ body. “It is ironic that Maran, among the most well-read, competent and reforms-friendly of politicians should be talking like this,” said Jairam Ramesh, economic commentator, “If the WTO is an evil, how has India managed to win some trade disputes against the US and Europe even as it has lost some others?”.
Maran certainly held strong opinions. The attitude was displayed best in the run-up to and at the Doha ministerial meeting of the WTO. He did not surprise any of us by playing in the typical Indian style of opposing everything, and when the going got tough, surrender to the larger body of world opinion. Apparently, he was guided by what he had to play before a home audience. Besides, according to him, he bought time on the controversial Singapore issues. Indeed that turned out to be true if one looks at what happened at Cancun, earning encomiums from our current commerce minister Arun Jaitley.
Maran wetted his beak when attending the third ill-fated meeting of the WTO at Seattle in November/December, 2000. Initially, he was being treated by the bureaucrats as a green minister, for he had taken over as commerce minister just a few weeks before the meet, in October. At the stormy Seattle meet, after the first two days, he seized charge of the process by putting the de facto head of the Indian delegation to his station. From that day, as the commerce minister, he has been in charge of whatever positions that we have developed at the WTO. He was one minister, who had his own mind and unless convinced, did not get swayed by advice.
He was well informed as our commerce minister, and would have taken on an increasingly one-sided agenda being pushed by some rich countries. He was surely missed at the ill-fated 5th ministerial conference held at Cancun in September, 2003. The whole multilateral trading system is so complex that it takes some time to study and develop skills to be able to comprehend even the ABC. But Maran was deft, because he worked hard and studied thoroughly. He often sought our reports and papers regularly, and even debated some of their contents. After the Doha ministerial meeting, when the US went tangent on a protectionist agenda: steel tariffs and increasing farm subsidies, he asked me to write about it.
The Doha meeting saw him in full bloom. He single handedly blocked the adoption of the agenda, and forced the meeting to extend by one day. US trade negotiator Robert Zoellick was hoping to tire the sick minister, but Maran disappointed him by staying awake the whole night of the penultimate day. In hindsight, his action was right, though many, including the Financial Times criticised him.
Before the Doha meeting, what surprised many of his detractors was his single minded pursuit of opposing the launch of a new round. And linking it to resolution of the existing implementation problems. He did not succeed in stopping the launch, but returned as a hero. Because, there was a text on resolving the implementation issues, diluting the TRIPs etc.
In fact, even during the meetings of the advisory committee, of which I am a member, he heard varying views on the issue of the new round. But stood his ground.
So much about trade. If one looks at his performance as the industries minister, it is quite different. He has been gung-ho on foreign direct investment in spite of the Swadeshi lobby. He has done extremely well, in spite of all odds. Though there has been a downturn in the world economy and FDI flows plunging even in the USA, flows into India went up a whopping 68 per cent in 2001-02. “On the ratio of FDI to GDP, we have come quite close to China,” said a beaming Maran to me when I queried him about the improving situation. “This is without considering the round tripping which inflates the Chinese inflows.” Alas, that smiling face is no more.