From mocking Sonia Gandhi to praising Narendra Modi, Piyush Goyal's views on RCEP membership mark quite the U-turn

FP Staff

Union Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal €" who was leading India's negotiations for the proposed trade deal Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) €" on Monday lauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his bold and courageous decision to not join the RCEP.

Goyal's comment was similar to what other BJP top brass said following the announcement that India has junked the ambitious trade pact involving 15 other countries. The party's working national president Jagat Prakash Nadda praised Modi for keeping in mind the interest of stakeholders including farmers, dairy sector, manufacturers and MSMEs, while Home Minister Amit Shah lauded the prime minister's "unflinching resolve" to protect national interest.

However, Goyal's tweets stand out because his position was a major volte face from merely two days ago when he mocked Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the issue and had also supported India joining the massive free trade agreement, a proposed alternative to the western hegemony on world trade.

"If India remains out of RCEP, we will be left isolated from this large trading bloc. The trade among RCEP countries is about $2.8 trillion. If India sits outside RCEP, whether it is in our interest or against our interest, it is also the responsibility of the government to see. You will want us to engage to find solutions which is in national interest," Goyal was quoted as saying by Livemint

His statements, given the fact that he was key negotiator for the deal from India's side, carried much weight and indicated that India was seriously considering joining the trade pact.

"We are not going to open any gate that will allow Chinese goods to flood Indian markets. But we also appreciate that the way the world is rapidly globalising and inter-dependencies are being created. In such a scenario, standing outside the room will not benefit us. India cannot stop its engagements and trade with the rest of the world. We need to develop capability to prevent unnecessary influx of Chinese goods," Goyal had said just ahead of the last rounds of negotiations.

He even slammed Sonia for opposing India joining the agreement.

In a series of tweets on 2 November, the minister said, "Smt. Sonia Gandhi ji has suddenly woken up to RCEP and FTAs. So where was she - When FTA with ASEAN was signed in 2010? When FTA with South Korea was signed in 2010? When FTA with Malaysia was signed in 2011? When FTA with Japan was signed in 2011? "

He further said, "So where was she When her Govt. opened 74% of its market to ASEAN countries but richer countries like Indonesia opened only 50 percent for India? Why did she not speak against giving larger concessions to richer countries."

"Where was Sonia ji when her Govt agreed to explore an India-China FTA in 2007? I hope ex PM Dr Manmohan Singh will speak up against this insult to him," Goyal said in one of the tweets. Gandhi on Saturday launched a blistering attack on the government on the state of economy, saying signing the RCEP agreement will result in "untold hardship" for farmers, shopkeepers and small enterprises.

"As economic decisions have not damaged the economy enough, it is now ready to deal a body blow to it by signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) - the regional free trade agreement of 16 Asian countries," Gandhi said.

Continuing his attack on Gandhi, Goyal tweeted, "So where was she - When trade deficit with RCEP nations increased from $7 Billion in 2004 to $78 Billion in 2014? When her Govt forced India to join RCEP negotiations with China in 2011-12."

Not only that, a statement from Prime Minister's Office issued as late as on Monday morning, offered no clues that India was going to walk away from the trade deal it appeared poised to join.

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to dispel the notion that India is as reluctant to join the RCEP trade deal. In a detailed interview to Bangkok Post he said, India remains committed to a comprehensive and balanced outcome from the ongoing RCEP negotiations but India would like a win-win outcome," the statement read.

The same evening, the government said it had decided not to join the RCEP trade deal for now.

The government's about turn on a crucial foreign policy issue at the last moment provided Congress much needed  ammunition against the government.  Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala was prompt in terming the move a win for the Congress party's efforts to protect national interests.

"As BJP and Sh. Amit Shah indulge in fake credit seeking today, let them remember that Congress' forceful opposition made them back down," he claimed.

He alleged that the BJP government "had gone overboard" in its zeal to sign RCEP. Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said the BJP government was all set to sign the RCEP agreement with pomp and show but had to stall its decision after farmers unitedly opposed it and did not allow their hard work and national interests to be bartered to foreign companies and countries.

"The BJP government after crushing farmers' interests, was going to hand over the national interests of India to foreign countries by signing the RCEP agreement (anti-farmer agreement) with pomp and show. But, the farmers of the country opposed it with complete unity," she said in a tweet in Hindi.  "They gave a clear message that their hard work will not be allowed to be handed over for the benefit of foreign companies.

After years of negotiations, India pulled out of the RCEP over unresolved "core concerns", with the prime minister saying the proposed deal would have adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of all Indians.

India registered a trade deficit in 2018-19 with as many as 11 RCEP member countries including China, South Korea and Australia.

The agreement has aimed to cover issues related to goods, services, investments, economic and technical cooperation, competition and intellectual property rights.

In such trade agreements, trading partners reduce or eliminate customs duties on maximum number of goods traded among themselves. They also relax norms like visa regimes to promote trade in services and attract investments.

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Daily Bulletin: Narendra Modi to begin two-day visit to Thailand, RCEP negotiations on cards; Sonia Gandhi to meet all Congress presidents; day's top stories

Narendra Modi to visit Thailand from 2 to 4 November for ASEAN-India, East Asia and RCEP summits

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