India: A Pipeline's "Threads Of Love"

Mani Shankar Aiyar, Minister, Petroleum & Natural Gas, India

In early June, Mani Shankar Aiyar, India's plucky Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas, made a 10-day trip to Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Iran. His goal: to secure long-term oil and gas contracts for energy-starved India. He did deals everywhere, but he really made international headlines when he arrived in Tehran and announced that India was ready to proceed with a $4 billion natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan.

Almost at once the U.S. denounced the plan as a violation of trade sanctions against Iran. Aiyar stood firm, insisting India needed such a deal to guarantee supplies of gas and to ease tensions with Pakistan by building commercial ties. In June he vowed to continue with the plans, declaring that construction could begin as early as next year. "The pipelines can prove to be the threads of love," says Aiyar.

Pretty good work for a guy who didn't even want the job. A former foreign service officer and a school chum of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Aiyar was elected to Parliament 14 years ago. He would have been happy to continue serving his constituents in Tamil Nadu. But a year ago, when Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow and President of the ruling Congress Party, asked him to take what he saw as an unappealing new ministerial berth, he just couldn't say no.

Aiyar quickly grew into the post. His diplomatic career has given him a global view of India, including its hunger for energy. India imports 80% of its oil and gas and -- despite domestic gas finds -- has little chance of weaning itself from that dependence since its economy is growing at 7% a year.

So Aiyar made securing India's energy future his first order of business. On Jan. 6, at a closed-door meeting in New Delhi, he assembled the oil ministers of eight OPEC nations as well as Asia's other major oil consumers -- China, Japan, and South Korea. Aiyar's vision? Lots of long-term contracts at better rates. He also wants a continuation of the pipeline from India into Bangladesh, back into India's eastern state of Mizoram, then to Burma, and finally to China and Southeast Asia. "If these pipelines can bring together countries that have been separated from each other, we can build the biggest geopolitical pact of the 21st century," says Aiyar. Sounds like a man who likes his job now.

By Manjeet Kripalani

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