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WTO 'star' talks tough

Rules of game have changed, says India trade minister

By Marianne Bray



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World Trade Organization (WTO)
Hong Kong
International Trade

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- India's Trade Minister Kamal Nath is holding fort in the presidential suite of the Renaissance Harbor View Hotel Hong Kong, a series of rooms that look east over Causeway Bay and across the harbor of this freewheeling entrepot.

It's still the early stages of the Hong Kong summit of the World Trade Organization, but he stands muttering to a minder in the foyer while phones ring and people hustle in and out of the rooms, bringing in newspapers and reports.

On the table is a folder filled with newspaper clippings, on the top of which lies one written by the Asian Wall Street Journal entitled "Star of the trade talks?," featuring a picture of Nath sitting next to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

The tough-talking Nath generated a buzz even before the trade summit started in this city on China's southern coast, and it grew as he made the round from one meeting to the next.

There he was in the hallway of the convention center surrounded by representatives from nongovernment organizations (NGOs). There he was in another room, hemmed in behind his desk by the world's journalists. There he was being whisked off for a television interview in front of a white vase with flowers in it. And there he was addressing the crowds at a G20 meeting.

In every meeting, the politician who hails from one of the poorest districts of India, is steadfast about not being hustled into a deal, even as the hordes crowd around him, shouting questions and ramming cameras in his face.

"It's not the conclusion of the round that matters, but the content," he tells the NGOs, the journalists and the delegates, clad in his deep blue kurta that is adorned with a badge of the Indian flag.

"Let's not get caught up in the hype."

Slap in the face

Agricultural subsidies are at the heart of the talks among the 149 nations at the WTO talks. The EU is demanding concessions for ditching subsidies to its farmers. In Europe, each cow gets an estimated $2.20 a day in subsidies, a figure higher than the daily wage for 1.2 billion people, according to Australia trade minister Mark Vaile.

"What these countries are asking is, 'If we don't do what we shouldn't be doing, what will you pay us for it?' They shouldn't be doing that (subsidizing) to start with," Nath says.

The current Doha Round of trade talks was meant to address the concerns of developing nations. Instead, much of it has focused on wealthy nations demanding market access from the poorer countries.

India's Nath is leading the charge in not so subtle ways, speaking for the developing nations when he says subsidies are a historical error and demanding they be removed to level the playing field and get rid of artificial prices.

"They (the U.S. and the EU) have to awaken to the transition that they are no longer farmers to the world," Nath says. "They're not competitive. You can't try being artificially competitive and thrust your subsidies down our throats."

Nath fell into politics while hanging out with the Gandhi children, has been a politician for 26 years, and he doesn't want the rules of global trade to keep on getting in the way of helping India's 650 million farmers "who are rearing to go," he says.

Plain-talking and earthy, the man who holds a unique position among both rich and poor nations and is a reformer at the helm of a surging economy, doesn't want any more statements of good intentions, he says he wants specificity.

He wants to know the date developed nations will end agricultural subsidies, an act they have agreed upon, and sometimes he gets frustrated at himself for being unable to communicate without sounding very sharp, "but listen the game has changed."

"This is the century of Asia. We must recognize that the mass of development, the mass of people, the mass of consumers are all in Asia. That is the changing economic architecture of the future."

Elected by 1.5 million voters in Chhindwara, a district that he writes down is at the geometric center of India, he is respected at the talks, "compared to the past when just listening to what we had to say was a mere formality," he says.

Citing a stream of global companies that have invested in India, Microsoft, Intel, Ford and General Motors, he says the corporate world understand the trade picture much better than negotiators, who often don't have the political mandate and space to move.

"Peter Mandelson is still batting for French farmers. The United States is batting for wheat and rice. It makes no sense."

They are so far removed from reality because they are still looking at the old way of doing things, the GATT style, "without comprehending that at the end of the day, their competitiveness is gone," he adds.

"What the developed world needs is healthy economies in Africa and Asia so that their technology and innovation can be absorbed by the people."

Tough talk

Just then, one of his many assistants brings over a bunch of newspapers and he stops mid-sentence to check over headlines which scream "EU, U.S. clash over aid."

The man seen as the potential deal broker if any agreement should happen -- has the support of many, including a number of NGOs.

But they question whether the tough talk will last.

"He can talk big at the beginning, the question is whether he will be talking big at the end," says Peter Drahos, a law professor at the Australian National University.

The son of an electrical equipment businessman, Nath admits he's a gadget person, and he loves to keep up with handheld technology, chuckling as he says "it's my amusement."

Then he takes my notebook and writes down that he's the president of the board of the Institute of Management Technology, IMT, he says proudly before shouting "come, come" to a group of people entering the room.

"India today is there on the radar, it used to be only China, now it is China and India," he says. Being able to say that gives him the best sense of fulfillment and it's the best part of his job.

"Every day you see the progress of greater interest in India. Every day it's something new. Four days ago it was Bill Gates I was having dinner with. Next day is this. And then you can see exactly what I'm doing is working.

"And next day it's the Toyota chairman and you're there and they're saying oh God, yeah, yeah yeah," and he trails off mid-sentence, stands up and moves to the table of eight people waiting for him in the dining room of the presidential suite.

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