Manmohan Singh emerged from his meeting with George W Bush in the Oval Office on 18 July with some devastatingly equivocal words. Asked by reporters about the discussions on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, the prime minister replied, ".there are many risks, because considering all the uncertainties of the situation there in Iran, I don\'t know if any international consortium of bankers would probably underwrite this".
Innocuous sounding words from a soft-spoken man, but they are harbingers of terrible tidings for a project supposed to energise the Indian economy, help usher peace between India and Pakistan and thereby benefit all Southasia.
Iran has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in the world. India\'s galloping economy needs to shift from coal and petroleum to natural gas in order to attain and exceed the magical annual 8 percent GDP growth rate. The cheapest way to transfer gas from Iran\'s South Pars reserves is via a pipeline through Pakistan and on to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi. In Islamabad, Gen Pervez Musharraf was enthusiastic and willing to provide guarantees of the pipeline\'s flow and mollify Indian worries of a tap turn-off during bad times.
What was unthinkable just a couple of years ago seemed suddenly possible. Southasia\'s arch-enemies were willing to collaborate for higher economic purpose. Indeed, the backward and forward linkages of the gas pipeline would lock India and Pakistan in a tight embrace. It could be the mother of all confidence building measures, and the political economy of our region would be transformed.
But something seems to have gone awry in Washington. There had always been the fear that the United States, with its deep animosity towards Iran, would act against the Iranian gas pipeline. The expectation was that the State Department would make Gen Musharraf buckle, but here you have India going into appeasement mode.
What lollipops were offered to the amenable scholar sardar? It was already clear in March, when US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice addressed a press conference in New Delhi, that she wasn\'t hot on Persian gas whatever its merits. At that time, Pakistani and Indian ministers had said together they would not be deterred by American aversion to everything Iranian.
After attacking and destabilising Iraq, Prez Bush is now on the lookout for other countries to restore democracy in. It is a terrible thing for a paradigm-shifting project in Southasia to be affected by the likes and dislikes of a president in another hemisphere, harbouring his own animosities and licking his own imagined wounds. But this president is powerful, insensitive and uncaring, and it was obviously too much to expect sensitivity to peace, economic progress and poverty-reduction in India and Southasia.
There had been an eerie silence from the hawks in Islamabad and New Delhi as the gas pipeline proposal gathered steam through last year. Harbouring deep distrust of any kind of rapproachment, they were nevertheless taken aback by fast-moving developments and the emerging possibilities. As long as the project proceeded at a rapid pace defined by the forceful Mani Shankar Aiyar, India\'s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, the hawks kept quiet. They feared being left behind by history.
Now, the hawks can be expected to crawl out of the woodwork with a chorus of I-told-you-so\'s. New Delhi\'s raptors are going to say that it was not nice to have ever considered trusting Islamabad on something as strategically critical as a pipeline supporting all industry. What if Islamabad turned off the tap? The hawks there will say it was foolish to have done anything to help the Indian economy anyway, and in particular to have disengaged this issue from the matter of Kashmir.
India can, of course, import gas from elsewhere, including via a pipeline from the Daulatabad gas fields of Turkmenistan or the off-shore fields of Burma\'s Arakan, or as liquefied gas via tankers from the Gulf. But the Iranian deal had seemed the most proximate and cost-effective. But besides economic reasons, there was the overwhelming need to use it to buttress peace between India and Pakistan.
Suddenly, there is a hiccup on the road to the peace pipeline. India, the Southasian superpower, seems to have blinked in the face of the world\'s superpower. One would have expected India to be made of sterner stuff.