An old friend returns as Indian High Commissioner

Venkat Raman

When Muktesh Pardeshi visited New Zealand in 2002 as Deputy Secretary (Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island Countries) at the External Affairs Ministry of India, little did he know it was the start of an enduring engagement with the region; neither did anyone have an inkling that 17 years later, he would head the Diplomatic Mission in Wellington.

Mr Pardeshi arrived on Monday, July 29, 2019 and presented his Credentials as the High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary of India the following day to Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy at the Government House in the Capital.

This was not the first time for an Indian or other Heads of Mission to present Credentials quickly. Retired Admiral Sureesh Mehta, who arrived in Wellington to take charge as India’s High Commissioner on December 8, 2009, presented his credentials to the then Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand the following day.

Mr Pardeshi will also be Non-Resident High Commissioner to Samoa and Ambassador to Kiribati and Nauru.

Engagement with New Zealand

As we have reported on several occasions over the past 20 years, India’s Foreign Policy is based on ‘Strategic Thinking’ and is largely driven by its philosophy of Non-Alignment and Non-Interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

It is one of the most admired policies in the world and Indian diplomats are respected for their competence to enhance bilateral relations in every foreign posting.

Mr Pardeshi is a fine product of India’s inimitable diplomacy.

Since the introduction of economic reforms, the focus has been on increasing Foreign Direct Investment and since 2015, the ‘Make in India’ initiative aims to make India a viable alternative for international manufacturers to consider India as a base.

Mr Pardeshi would certainly prioritise strengthening of political relations between India and his host country, although there are no serious issues of concern outstanding.

There have been a few ministerial visits from India although reciprocity has not been well matched. John Key visited India twice (we accompanied him on both) in 2011 and 2016 and returned home empty-handed, save for a largely ceremonial Memoranda of Understanding on Education and Defence and the highly unsuccessful ‘Civil Aviation Agreement’ and ‘Open Sky Policy.’

The Challenge of FTA

Talks on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and New Zealand began in November 2007 but have remained inconclusive. There are many imponderables that block such a pact, the most significant of which is India’s unwillingness to remove tariff on imports of agricultural, diary and other products from New Zealand. The Trans-Pacific Partnership has become an another irritant. India is ready to offer an FTA on the Services Sector, but Wellington insists on a ‘Comprehensive Pact.’

“There are many other opportunities for New Zealand businesses in India. It would be worthwhile to explore them,” Mr Pardeshi told Indian Newslink, adding that businesses of Indian origin can tap into the vast potential.

New Zealand investors may have limitations in the manufacturing sector but can be viable partners in India’s massive plans to improve and modernise its infrastructure. There are still ample opportunities in trade and commerce.

Mr Pardeshi agrees that as he studies the ground realities and promotes better economic and trade relations between India and New Zealand, he would have to address the challenge of increasing India’s exports to offset the persisting imbalance in balance of payments.

An External Affairs Minister has not been to New Zealand in the last 20 years. Mr Pardeshi would certainly try to eventuate a visit and perhaps also work towards the visit of Narendra Modi to this country over next year or so.

Indian Newslink understands that the Modi government proposes to open diplomatic missions in several countries of the South Pacific, including Samoa and Tonga (which are currently served from Wellington and Suva respectively). The increased presence and India’s desire to enhance its influence in the Pacific Islands Forum could be motivational.

Interest in the region

Mr Pardeshi’s involvement with New Zealand and countries of the South Pacific has been pronounced. His groundwork was largely responsible for India to become a ‘Dialogue Partner’ of the Pacific Islands Forum in 2002 and he was a part of the delegation that attended the 34th Annual Summit of the Forum hosted by the then Prime Minister Helen Clark in Auckland at Sheraton (now Cordis) Hotel in Auckland from August 12 to August 19, 2003.

The delegation was led by External Affairs Secretary (Asia and North Africa) Rajinder Abhyankar, Technical Cooperation Joint Secretary Emmanuel Barwa and others. (The late Vinod Khanna, Hindi film actor, who was then Minister of State for External Affairs was to have led the delegation but could not do so).

About Pacific Islands Forum

The Pacific Islands Forum is the main regional organisation through which the Pacific countries formulate a collective view on international issues. Its 16 members are Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Interest in the Forum has been increasing among the Pacific Rim countries and the Forum’s Dialogue Partners include the US, Canada, France, UK, China, South Korea, Japan, European Union, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and India.

India’s keenness to foster bilateral and multilateral ties with the countries of the South Pacific in general and those of the Pacific Islands in particular, have taken significant strides over the years with the visit of high-level delegations to Forum meetings and member countries and India’s grants, aids and loan guarantees to a few countries.

The Forum provides an important annual opportunity for Pacific Islands leaders to discuss the political, economic and developmental issues facing the region in a time of rapid change, globalisation and increasing instability.

New Delhi has been seeking membership status which has thus far not materialised. India shares the Commonwealth heritage and common interests with most countries of the region. A full membership will be mutually beneficial.

The Sir Edmund Hillary connection

Mr Pardeshi was involved with the visit to New Delhi of the late Sir Edmund Hillary in 2003 to be honoured by the then Prime Minister, the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The celebrations included publication of a Special Commemorative Stamp and the naming of the Road where the New Zealand High Commission is located as ‘Sir Edmund Hillary Marg.’

Eight years later, in June 2011, the then Prime Minister John Key remarked during this first official visit to New Delhi (this Reporter was with him) that it was a gesture that was seen by New Zealanders as ‘a great measure of goodwill and understanding.’

In the historic perspective, Sir Edmund reignited relations between the two countries, following years of diplomatic winter.

Appointed by the then Prime Minister, the late Sir David Lange, Sir Edmund served as High Commissioner to India from 1985 to 1990 with concurrent status to Nepal and Bangladesh.

Sir Edmund was honoured at the Independence Day Celebrations organised by then Indian High Commissioner Bal Anand on August 15, 2004.

Another milestone relationship

Relations between India and New Zealand touched another milestone when the Indian Government conferred the title of ‘Padma Vibhushan,’ the second highest civilian award posthumously on Sir Edmund at a Ceremony held at the Government House in Auckland on May 22, 2008 under the patronage of the then Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand.

Lady June Hillary received the posthumous award given on behalf of the Indian President (Pratibha Patil) by the visiting Commerce and Industry Minister (Kamal Nath) in the presence of the Indian High Commissioner (Kadakath Pathrose Ernest).

Indian Newslink was closely involved with the ‘Padma Vibhushan Project.’

About Muktesh Pardeshi

Born in Bihar, Mr Pardeshi (who is proficient in many languages including Spanish),  joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1991 and worked in his country’s diplomatic missions in Columbia, Nepal, Indonesia and Mexico, apart from postings in the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi. It was during his tenure as the Head of Passports (2010 to 2016) that the systems and procedures were streamlined, improving the standard of service on a part with the best in the world. His services were applauded by the government (and personally to this Reporter by Overseas Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi during his visit to Auckland in 2010).

Among the highlights of his diplomatic career was the ‘Disarmament Programme’ in Geneva in 1998.

Married to Rakhi, a teacher by profession, the couple have two daughters who live in London and New Delhi.

Muktesh and Rakhi Pardeshi with Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy and at the Government House in Wellington on August 1, 2019 soon after presenting his credentials as High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary of the Government of India (Picture from Twitter @MukteshPardeshi)

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