India always likes to occupy the high moral ground when it comes to multilateral agreements like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, global trade talks and so on. But in the recent build-up to and during the Copenhagen summit, it abandoned any such pretence. It is making a point, as it always does, of safeguarding the country's interests, but two questions remain.

From moral high ground to 'Americon'

First, since when did India's interests diverge from those of other developing countries, the G77 group of 130 nations, as Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is now explicitly stating? He has gone further to assert that India wasn't in Copenhagen to save the world or humanity. If India's interests coincide with those of the US, which orchestrated the suspect Copenhagen accord, or the recently cobbled together BASIC coalition (of "the willing") consisting of Brazil, south Africa and China as well, all of whom comprise the biggest emitters of greenhouses gases in absolute terms, this is a drastic change in India's foreign policy, let alone environmental policy.

Second, and perhaps more insidiously, did Ramesh in his justification in the Rajya Sabha actually imply that India no longer cares for the 600 million nationals who have to make do without any commercial energy whatsoever, as well as 300 million of these who don't have access to electricity? This is the only inference one can draw from his statements: it means that the government is aligning itself with the well to do of the world.

Thomas Freidman, the prolific New York Times columnist, refers to 'Americons'in the world. These are the three or four groups of 300-odd million consumers in countries, or groups of countries like the EU, who use resources on an American scale, at least by purchasing power parity. India consitutes one of these Americons, but to turn our backs on the 800 million other Indians (who spend Rs 20 a day, according to official statistics) is a terrible volte-face.

So much for the moral ground. The contrast between the stand taken by India in the predecessor to Copenhagen - the UN Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 - couldn't have been starker. Then India, under the ebullient and outspoken Environment Minister Kamala Nath, was the scourge of a recalcitrant George Bush Sr. When Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was about to leave for Rio to deliver his speech, along with other heads of state, at the end of the conference, the White House (as a senior US diplomat confided to this writer, four years later) admonished Delhi and Rao had to tone down the anti-US rhetoric.

The criticism at that time, incidentally, was for the US not being pro-active on climate change and specifically not signing the biodiversity treaty, which would have safeguarded rare plants and animals. The US was concerned about American drug companies losing their patent rights on the use of rare plants from developing countries for medicines because the treaty recognised the rights of cultivators or collectors of such plants.

Whose delegates?

While India was the voice of the global South in Rio (China was nowhere in sight), it occupied the low moral ground in Copenhagen. Despite the presence of the irrepressible Ramesh, who is never at a loss for words normally and indeed shoots his mouth off when it isn't required, India was conspicuous by its public absence at the recent summit. Moreover, It was plain to most of us covering the conference that the Indian 'delegation' was - as is common in so many international events - doing its best to keep the Indian people at arm's length. The situation is best described by Joydeep Gupta of Indo-Asian News Service:

The harsh truth is that climate change is already upon us and can't wait for industrial and other big emitters to safeguard their interests, leaving the poor in big countries, along with the most vulnerable in sub-Saharan Africa and small islands, to sink or be caught in the vice-like grip of perennial drought.

 •  Playing the victim
 •  Strengthen climate diplomacy

"The Indian government delegation at the Copenhagen climate summit held two press conferences during the 11-day conference, one exclusively for Indian journalists, and one at the main press conference room. In contrast, the Brazilian delegation held a press conference for everyone almost every day; the Chinese not only did that but also set up an information centre where anyone could go anytime, ask a question and be assured that there would be an answer. The US and EU information centres had press conferences going for much of the day, every day, apart from daily briefings.

"There were 40-50 Indian journalists covering the summit. If they wanted to know what the government of India thought of a particular development, they had to run to the delegation office, hoping a senior member of the delegation would be present and would explain the position. Or they had to ring someone in the hope that the call would be taken. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh - leading the delegation in the second week - is known to be media savvy, but even his comments on what was going on had to be on a catch-as-catch-can basis. 'Why don't the Indians ever want to talk?' was the constant question from many of the 3500 journalists gathered from around the world to cover the summit. In the absence of authentic information, speculation continued."

At Rio, the late Anil Agarwal, founder-editor of Down To Earth journal and of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, was in constant cahoots with Kamal Nath and would brief him about the views of NGOs. It was a two-way and very productive process. Those of us covering the summit had easy access to the minister and his officials, and there was an excellent quid pro quo as a consequence. I reported in The Times of India how Kamal Nath, asked by a NYT reporter why India was badgering Bush about not signing the biodiversity treaty, retorted: "It's all about Bushes and Quayles" (his Vice President, a pun on wild plants and animals, flora and fauna)!

The skirts of China

China, which many countries are seeing as the deal-breaker in Copenhagen, characteristically plays a backroom role in such negotiations and this was also the case here. Its negotiators, despite honourable exceptions in Copenhagen, are not as fluent in English or in handling the media as Indians are. Despite India's chief climate negotiator Shyam Saran putting a brave face on the volte-face in a recent interview with Karan Thapar on CNN/IBN, the BASIC coalition draft was presented to Ramesh when he was on an official trip to Beijing only a few weeks before Copenhagen. It was reportedly given to him late one night and he was asked to sign and return it by the next morning, as a fait accompli. Presumably, Brazil and South Africa were given similar summary treatment.

This could not have been welcomed by left-wing Latin American leaders like Hugo Chaves of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia, or other African countries. Incidentally, G77 was ably represented by Lumumba di-Aping of Sudan, who minced no words in his condemnation of industrial countries in general, and the US and Denmark in particular.

India should not be hiding behind the skirts of China in this craven manner, even if that country admittedly has far greater clout in international affairs because of the staggering size of its economy. India and China have many unresolved issues between them, not our least border alignments. At the end of the day, China isn't a democratic country and isn't subject to the same grilling that parliament and the press hand out to decision-makers in this country. The very fact that Ramesh had to retreat from his earlier gaffe, when he wrote to the PM suggesting that India should voluntarily accept emission cuts and put these up for international verification, speaks for itself.

The correct line

To recap, India's interests are very much in line with what our negotiators - Saran and the former Environment Secretary made no secret of their antipathy to Ramesh's misguided moves - have been saying ad nauseam, over the past two years, from UN conferences at Bali to Bonn and Bangkok. Industrial countries must first commit to making "ambitious" cuts in their emissions, failure to do so attracting penalties, as the Kyoto Protocol prescribes. This explains President Obama's allergy to the very mention of Kyoto. They must also commit funds and technologies to help developing countries adapt to climate change, for which the latter is not in any way responsible.

The Copenhagen "accord" is a cop-out because it isn't binding and doesn't address a single of these issues. Even the offer of $10 billion a year to developing countries from 2010 for three years and a $100 billion a fund from 2020 begs the question: what funding will be available between 2013 and 2020?

The harsh truth is that climate change is already upon us and can't wait for industrial and other big emitters to safeguard their interests, leaving the poor in big countries, along with the most vulnerable in sub-Saharan Africa and small islands, to sink or be caught in the vice-like grip of perennial drought. Industrial countries have so far only pledged to cut their emissions by an average of 17 per cent by 2020 - the US, a measly 4 per cent measured like the rest on 1990 levels - whereas the science insists that cuts of 40-45 per cent are required.