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India Could Gain From Tsunami Diplomacy

  • Anjana Pasricha

India has been extending aid to neighboring nations struck by the Indian Ocean tsunami while coping with the disaster on its own shores. India also has refused international aid, saying it has resources to deal with the crisis. Anjana Pasricha reports on New Delhi's new message to the international community in the wake of the recent disaster.

Within hours of the tsunami on December 26, Indian warships and aircraft loaded with relief material were on the way to its two tiny neighbors battered by the waves - Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

At the same time, India put in place the country's largest peace-time relief operation to help tens of thousands of victims of its own.

As the world pledged billions of dollars to help the stricken countries, New Delhi refused foreign government aid, saying it should be directed to countries in greater need.

Analysts say the message to the international community is clear - India is no helpless victim, but a country that is an emerging power.

Uday Bhaskar, director at the Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, says with the world's fourth largest military and a growing economy, India is in a position to address its own crisis and extend a helping hand to others.

"India is trying to definitely convey a certain determination that it is in a position to play a certain responsible role as quickly as it is required," he said. "In the Indian Ocean, India is the most credible navy and therefore it was in a position to extend this kind of humanitarian assistance."

Since the disaster, India has deployed 10 warships to ferry hundreds of tons of supplies to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia. The air force has flown military medical teams and navy scuba divers to some of these countries.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently visited some tsunami-hit countries, including India. He said New Delhi's role in the relief operation has been noticed internationally.

"The important role that India has played in sadly being a victim, yes, but at the same time stepping up and contributing to the region," he said. "I heard it directly from the leadership in Sri Lanka, the tremendous assistance and help that has been put forward by India."

Analysts say India's response fits with its diplomatic ambitions. New Delhi is campaigning for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. It has a space program and nuclear bombs.

A foreign affairs expert at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, Brahma Chellaney, says India has demonstrated it is willing to take on regional responsibility.

"It raises India's international and diplomatic profile," he said. "India has been in recent years playing an expanded role and the fact that now in response to the tsunami, India reached out quickly to neighboring states that were hit by the tsunami only reinforces India's larger regional role."

The decision to turn down foreign aid met with some criticism from those who say India should have ensured its citizens got the best deal in the crisis. There were also concerns that an often inept bureaucracy may not deliver aid in the most effective manner to the tens of thousands of affected people, many of whom are on remote islands.

But many political analysts support the go-it-alone policy. They point out that in recent years, India has shown it no longer needs massive aid. It phased out foreign aid two years ago from all but six major donors. It also became a creditor nation to the International Monetary Fund. It has even added its name to the long list of donor nations for tsunami-stricken nations, pledging $23 million.

An economist with the R.P. Goenka Foundation, D.H. Pai Panandikar, says India's expanding economy has given it the confidence to stand on its own.

"Some years back India was looked upon as a country which depended too much on aid not only for disasters but for economic development," he said. "But now that aid mentality is totally abandoned and India depends more on trade and foreign direct investment."

At home, the cost of rebuilding areas of Tamil Nadu state and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from the tsunami may run into billions of dollars - but the government is confident it can meet the cost. Officials point out that private donations have already swelled the government's disaster relief funds by $80 million. And India will seek funds from global financial institutions for longer-term rehabilitation.

Analysts say New Delhi's stature may have been enhanced in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster - but India will have to ensure that it handles its own relief operation effectively if it wants the image to stick.