The modest progress made at the recently concluded Durban Climate Change Conference towards a new international institutional framework saw India at the centre stage, but with a positive spin. Unlike in the past, where India was frequently pilloried in the West as an obstructionist that stuck to its own narrow national interests above the collective interests of the multilateral process, our environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan emerged from Durban as a deal-maker rather than a deal-breaker.
The eleventh hour 'huddle' and compromise reached between Natarajan and her European interlocutor brought relief to the international community, which had feared that the deadlock between the global South and North would produce yet another United Nations 'talking shop' fiasco. Natarajan was conscious of the barbs hurled at India before and at Durban as a cussed player that blocked progressive multilateral proposals. In one verbal clash with European Union Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegarrd, she retorted that blaming India for the stalemate was an "agenda" to "hold us hostage".
In the end, a classic diplomatic draw resulted, with Natarajan acceding to the EU's pet project of a 'roadmap' for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that will apply to all UN members and not just to those from the global North. This was a dilution from India's previous stand that it and fellow countries of the South should be exempt from binding carbon emission cuts because of their 'right to economic development'.
But as a safeguard, India inserted sufficient vagueness into the language describing the successor mechanism of Kyoto to avoid caving in to an international legal treaty that would constrain our economic growth. The word "equity" was also officially entered into the agenda of the working group of the UN Climate Change Convention, leaving space for heavy bargaining over differential responsibilities of the South when the successor to Kyoto is instituted.
The pragmatic quid pro quos that Natarajan executed at Durban stand in sharp contrast to acts of bravado and dogged rejection of any concessions at the multilateral level for which India had become notorious ever since the former commerce minister, Kamal Nath, stuck his neck out in Geneva in 2008 and was castigated as the arch-villain responsible for the logjam in the Doha Round of negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The image of India as an irritating naysayer had stuck for the last few years in the western imagination. Western pique at India's refusal to budge on trade and climate change was epitomised by Barbara Crossette's hard-hitting article in Foreign Policy in January 2010, which accused New Delhi of "giving global governance the biggest headache".
The reality behind this propaganda campaign against India was that western powers were in relative decline and hence finding the behaviour of emerging economies too uppity. What has happened since Nath's undeserved infamy, however, is that the west has realised that the scales are indeed tilting towards the east and that the former must accommodate the latter's priorities instead of characteristically trampling on them in a hitherto unequal international economic order. The EU and the US of 2008 are mellower today because of their economic malaises and are relenting somewhat to keep India and China within the loop of existing institutional frameworks.
In fact, it is now India's chance to turn the heat on the US for the latter's foot-dragging in the long-delayed Doha Round talks of the WTO. India's trade secretary Rahul Khullar recently predicted that the Doha Round would not be concluded successfully until the US presidential elections were over in late 2012. That American domestic political lobbying in the farm sector has been the real spoiler of the Doha Round is now becoming all the more evident.
Appearances are as important as words and deeds in world politics, and India had remained two steps behind the west and China in this game. Now that Natarajan has displayed a calculated flexibility (of course, with red lines and limits) at Durban, India can claim to be slowly becoming skilled at global public relations. We are fall guys no more, not only in front of our own perennially convinced nationalistic home audience, but before the cynical world at large too.
Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal.