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India nurturing ties with old, poorer allies

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As a sign of India’s growing global clout and newfound economic swagger, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council visited New Delhi last year. It was the fruition of India’s decade-long effort to align itself with the elite club.

Along the way, India had neglected many of its older, poorer allies as it networked with the rich and powerful.

But now India is rediscovering its old friends in the underdeveloped world, hoping to secure natural resources and a permanent spot on the Security Council when the body eventually expands.

“For long, India positioned itself as the champion of the poor and the dispossessed nations of the world. But as we began the journey of progress, our focus turned to the global big boys,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former ambassador in Washington. “If India aspires to a place on the high table of United Nations, it will also need the votes of the poorer and smaller countries. We can’t afford to neglect them anymore.”

To mend ties, India has advocated the interests of these countries at international summits and announced loans and grants, as well as plans for rail lines, information technology centers, virtual universities and telemedicine facilities.

Two weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the second Africa-India Forum summit in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and reminded the 15 resource-rich countries in attendance of their historic relationship. India is emotionally connected to Africa, he said, also noting that India and Africa were joined as one landmass many millenniums ago.

“We will offer $5 billion for the next three years under lines of credit to help Africa achieve its development goals,” he said at the summit.

Three months earlier, New Delhi hosted a summit of the 48 “least-developed countries,” including small Pacific island states. The group constitutes 25 percent of the total U.N. membership.

In February, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, criticized the United States and other industrialized countries for their delay in fulfilling a Copenhagen accord promise of giving $30 billion to poorer countries to deal with the effects of climate change. At trade treaty talks in Paris last month, India insisted that trade barriers should be removed to help cotton-growing African countries compete.

It hasn’t always been easy to maintain friendships in both groups. As its strategic partnership with the United States strengthened, for example, India had an awkward time with its old ally Iran. India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2009 amid concerns about its nuclear program, but abstained from voting at the United Nations the next year.

During the first four decades after its independence from British rule, India found kinship with many nations that had also broken free from colonialism. During the Cold War, India was a vocal part of the Non-Aligned Movement and also was in the Group of 77, a behemoth of 130 developing nations that negotiated trade talks as a single bloc.

Analysts say many smaller countries would endorse India’s future U.N. bid if they believed India really cared about them. They also say India is also playing catch-up with China as the two countries expand their influence in Africa to access resources.

Foreign Ministry officials say that analysis might be too simplistic.

“We have had a traditional and historical relationship with the African nations. We have had partnerships in technology, education, health and agriculture,” said Vishnu Prakash, joint secretary in the Foreign Ministry. “We are a developing country. So we understand many of their challenges. Now that our own economy is growing faster, we are in a position to scale up our economic cooperation. Why should we be tight-fisted?”

Not everyone welcomes India’s recent largess to African nations.

“China is suffering from a problem of plenty, whereas India is still grappling with hunger. Surely, we can spend that money to build roads, hospitals and power stations in India,” said Mohan Guruswamy, director of the think-tank Center for Policy Alternatives. “If India pulls its people out of poverty, then the world will definitely want us in the Security Council. India shouldn’t be trying to buy friendship.”

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