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'A shrill negative narrative based on half-truths is hurting the India story'

Trade minister Anand Sharma did not disclose the name of the global chain that is likely to announce its foray into India's retail sector, but said the investment will happen 'very soon.'

business Updated: Dec 17, 2013 10:21 IST

Commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma led the negotiations at the World Trade Organisation's (WTO's) ministerial meeting at Bali, Indonesia, where India successfully lobbied for welfare schemes for the poor. He spoke to Hindustan Times on a range of issues from analyst reports predicting a BJP victory in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, to details of the WTO deal. Excerpts:

Some global investment banks have come out with reports pointing towards the possibility of a Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre in 2014. Your comments.
I am very wary of investment banks and other rating organisations who try to pre-judge what is the exclusive privilege of the 800 million Indian voters. They should focus on their work. Did they predict what would happen to Lehman Brothers? If they are such good analysts who make prophetic statements, then what went wrong?

Why is nobody talking about the positives? There has been an atmosphere which has been created and fuelled by a lot of untruths, lot of fabrication, lot of half-truths. For example, in the presumptive loss theory ( in 2G telecom spectrum allocation), the author — the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) — should be questioned. Why is the country not asking questions? The entire sector has half collapsed. The same can be said about the coal sector.

There is a shrill negative narrative that is hurting the India story. It is a virus which we have imported. It is a virus which we have created. There have been cases of judicial overreach when it comes to the policy space. Policy is the exclusive domain of the executive.

How important was the WTO deal at Bali for global trade?
It was not only the question of what will be the final outcome of the ministerial meeting, but also about the credibility of the WTO as the multi-lateral institution to govern rule-based trading. I say so because since 1995, when the WTO was established, the ministerial meetings have been non-productive, and therefore the deliberations at Bali were being keenly watched across the world. Connected to that was also the future of the Doha round that began in 2001. So, both the centrality of the WTO as well as the future of the Doha round were at stake.

During the course of the negotiations, was India offered a separate package to push ahead with the agenda of the developed countries?
India had put together a very strong coalition and it had restored India's leadership role among developing countries. India was specifically offered a "grandfathering" deal, which I rejected on grounds of principle. We insisted on putting together a permanent solution in place. India was spearheading the negotiations and other countries were looking upto India. We insisted it should be for all developing countries. I also insisted that all those developing countries which currently do not have sovereign food security programmes, but may launch in the future, should also be covered in the package.

Countries come from different levels of development. So you have to find a middle ground in a spirit of mutual accommodation. There cannot be country-specific agreements. I must make it very clear. No country has got a country-specific agreement otherwise there would have been 159 agreements in Bali.

We insisted on an interim agreement. Until a permanent solution is not agreed upon, the interim agreement will hold. This is the early harvest. The final harvest will come.

From a domestic political perspective, will it be correct to say that the key takeaway from Bali for India was that it will now allow an unhindered roll out of the food security programme?
The three pillars that were discussed were trade facilitation, the least developed countries (LDC) package as well as public stockholding of food stocks. Food security belongs to nations' sovereign space and doesn't belong to multi-lateral trade discussions.

For instance, food security is the exclusive domain of the Indian Parliament. But, it was important to have the protective cover on procurement of foodgrains and public stockholding of foodgrains.

Countries would have been left vulnerable under the existing rules as per the 1994 agreement, which I had stated in Bali was dated. The rules were dated, the agreement is dated and the external reference prices were dated.

Is there a disagreement within the cabinet on expanding the free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN countries?
I do not see any delay happening because there is a framework agreement, which has the approval of the cabinet, which goes back to 2003. There is also the mandate of the trade and economic relations committee (TERC). What we have with ASEAN is a negotiated agreement - negotiated, agreed, intialled and mentioned as completed at the ASEAN-India summit in New Delhi in December 2012 and reaffirmed in Brunei.

So, it a question of a process, which will be completed at the earliest without any delay. India has gained hugely after signing the FTA with ASEAN countries. Our total trade with ASEAN countries is $75 billion-plus, which is more than double of the value when we signed it.