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India Looks for a New Role On the Shifting World Stage


GAZING out of his expansive office in New Delhi, Pranab Mukherjee seems unable to restrain his delight. As India's newly appointed foreign minister, he finds himself directing the country's most dramatic shift in foreign policy in decades.

With the end of the cold war and after years of adhering to a ''fiercely independent foreign policy,'' as one Western diplomat puts it, India is now eager to play a more prominent role in world affairs. But India is still trying to to find a suitable role for itself in a world devoid of the Soviet Union. New Delhi is establishing diplomatic ties with more nations and is also aggressively pursuing a quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as membership in global trade alliances.

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''India is determined to be recognized as a global power,'' says a diplomat here. At the same time, Indian officials say they have not abandoned their role as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement -- a loose affiliation of nations that tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to remain neutral during the cold war.

''Our policies are not disengaging but engaging us in world affairs,'' Mr. Mukherjee said in an interview with the Monitor, shortly before leaving for a visit this week to the United States.

Driving India's new foreign policy are the country's economic reforms, which it began four years ago. India is dismantling its socialist-style economy in hopes of matching the economic success of China and other East Asian nations.

Economics has become a ''very important element'' in India's foreign policy, says Mukherjee, who served as the country's commerce and finance ministers. ''Our diplomatic missions are also being oriented significantly toward economic work.'' Trade issues are likely to play a prominent role in Mukherjee's talks with US officials this week. The US is India's largest trading partner, with more than $8 billion in annual two-way trade.

Some analysts, however, are skeptical of India's ability to transform itself into a diplomatic powerhouse. ''The fundamental problem is that India carries so much baggage,'' says another diplomat here. He is referring to India's lingering feud with neighboring Pakistan, which is hampering its efforts to assert itself on the world stage.

Relations between the two nations have grown even worse in recent weeks, following the destruction of a Muslim shrine in Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao blamed ''Pakistani extremists'' for setting the fire that razed the village of Charar-i-Sharif in Kashmir. Pakistan denies any involvement.

The disputed region remains at the heart of their sour relations. In fact, the two countries cannot even agree on the structure of talks. India insists that discussions be restricted to the two nations, while Pakistan would like the UN, or some other third party, to act as mediator.

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Despite the friction between the two countries, Mukherjee insists that India ''does not have a Pakistan-centric diplomacy.''

Meanwhile, India is attempting to strengthen ties with other Asian nations. It recently settled a long-standing border dispute with China and signed a trade deal with Singapore. US officials, however, have expressed concern about one of India's budding ties with Iran, a nation labelled an ''outlaw'' by the US.

When Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani visited New Delhi last month, he received an enthusiastic welcome. Prime Minister Rao broke with protocol and personally greeted the Iranian leader at the airport. During the visit, the two nations pledged to work more closely together. ''Our commercial and economic cooperation with Iran has brought us together,'' explains Mukherjee. India hopes to use Iranian ports as alternative routes to Central Asia. Plans also call for a natural-gas pipeline from Iran to India.

Responding to US criticism about its alliance with Iran, Mukherjee responded: ''We have our strong views against fundamentalism and terrorism. There is no compromise on that issue.''

Another issue where the US and India sharply disagree is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India is one of a handful of countries that has consistently refused to sign the treaty, which more than 170 nations ratified in New York earlier this month. India declined even to send an observer mission to the talks.

''We find [the treaty] completely unacceptable,'' Mukherjee says. ''It has legitimized the possession of nuclear weapons by five powers.''

India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, has argued that the only acceptable solution is a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons. ''We have no difference with the ultimate object of the NPT: the total elimination of nuclear weapons,'' he says.

Indian officials, meanwhile, say the country will continue to play its role as an unofficial spokesman for the developing world. It continues to take tough stands on issues like global warming, child labor, and resisting Western pressures that smaller nations can not. Says a Western diplomat in New Delhi, ''Because of their size, they have given a voice to the voiceless.''

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