Phoney knights in showy armour

Successful people
Have separate shoes
Some for celebrations
Others for grief
–Govinda Mathur, Bache huye shabda

President Hamid Karzai has more faith in his American guards than in his own people. General Musharraf refuses to speak to an "uncivilised" parliament but courts even lowly Pentagon officials enthusiastically. King Gyanendra has chosen, since 4 October 2002, to walk the treacherous bylanes of state power all alone, but he can do nothing about what the US government considers international terrorists. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has very little confidence in the peacemaking abilities of Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, but cannot deny him his moment in the sun due to the pressure of the Washington Consensus. For Begum Khalida Zia of Bangladesh, the motives of anyone opposed to her quixotic politics are suspect, but even she trembles at the Western charge that her country is harbouring Al Qaeda fugitives.

In Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh will lob cheap innuendo at each other but will not do anything to oppose American presence in the region. The Lalooland of Bihar does not even make a claim to political civility — its de facto chief minister graces a political rally to celebrate the power of the stick, presumably because it is useful in electoral politics. But in his rally, Laloo at least showed the courage to stand against American imperialism, even though his actions have very little significance.

Things are not much better in Maharashtra or Gujarat where since Saffronites are in control of public life, everyone is disturbingly quiet about the crusade against Muslims in West Asia. A little to the southeast, there is no love lost between the competing claimants of Annadurai's political legacy in Madras. Chandrababu Naidu's courtesy towards the leadership of the Congress is largely a reflection of the political reality in his state. His Telugu Desam cannot run the Andhra administration by antagonising Sonia Gandhi's sympathisers in the Hyderabad secretariat — but the keeper of Telugu pride needs them only to check the powerful challenge of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But all of them are keeping mum about the new hegemon in the region —United States of America.

Even though democracy survives in some form or the other in more parts of South Asia now than ever before, popular governments have failed to transform the ruling classes of this region. Not unlike their feudal predecessors, the elite of even democratic regimes from Kashmir to Colombo continues to conduct itself with the arrogance of "since I am the boss around here, I know best what is best for you all". Despite democracy and the freedom of press, dissent can still put you at peril — even a historian of Romila Thapar's standing has to learn to live with state-inspired public ridicule. So the masses have learnt to accept the hard reality of American arrogance simply because the elite has ignominiously acquiesced.

American eminence
A division in the ranks of the ruling elite has often led to cataclysmic events. The creation of Pakistan was largely a result of mutual suspicion between the Muslim and Hindu intelligentsia of the Indian National Congress, epitomised by a clash of the personalities of two barristers —Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The birth of Bangladesh became a foregone conclusion the moment the feudocratic military establishment of Islamabad refused to deal with Bengali winners of electoral politics from East Pakistan on equal terms. Among other factors, the demagoguery of Sinhala politicos ensured the rise of Tamil insurgency in Jaffna. The effects of these conflicts continue to afflict all South Asians to this day.

In a socially integrated region such South Asia, it is perhaps natural that intrastate conflicts have interstate ramifications, but when divided rulers exploit solidarity, the unity of the people often proves to be a curse. Islamabad cannot keep itself aloof from what is happening inside Kashmir or Kandahar even if it wants to. Indira Gandhi had to invade East Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh. But her son's compulsions in Jaffna were different — Rajiv Gandhi had to dispatch peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka to prevent the creation of an independent Tamil state.

Whether it is the fate of Lhotshampas languishing in the refugee camps of eastern Nepal or the lot of the Biharis of Bangladesh braving the crossing of India to make it to Pakistan, the destinies of all South Asians are inextricably intertwined. Unfortunately, the ruling elite of Colombo, Dhaka, Islamabad, Kathmandu, New Delhi and Thimpu does not appreciate this, mainly because it lives in the gated ghettos of capital cities. And it has increasingly begun to think that the best guarantee against any challenge from the people is an American insurance policy, bought by unquestioningly supporting the Bush-Blair duo, even in its own neighbourhood.

Politicians take all the blame — much of it well deserved, no doubt — but other constituents of the ruling elite cannot be exonerated of wilful failure on all fronts. It is said that the market integrates, literature opens the mind, the media liberates and the intelligentsia encourages tolerance. Perhaps. But these 'agents of change' are doing anything but. They behave more Bushy than Tony. Then why bemoan the fact that it takes a bludgeoning from the global bully to make AB Vajpayee and Z Jamali talk to each other? Is it not a fact that were it not for American pressure, the Tamil Tigers would have withdrawn from the negotiating table long ago, and the Maoists of Nepal would still be ransacking and ravaging the countryside at will?

Let us face it: the South Asian elite is too disconnected from the masses to understand their trials and tribulations. Lacking indigenous tools of comprehension, it needs American prisms to make sense of its own surroundings. And then, inevitably, Pentagon 'persuasion' to act on contradictions within its own societies.

Blustering bourgeoisie
Farid Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, is a typical American republican who places personal liberty high in the order of priority, way above the need of democratic politics. Zakaria hails from India, has a Muslim name, and has no compunction in manufacturing intellectual apologies for the aggressive neoliberalism of his adopted country. American conservatives could not have wished for a better poster-boy for their post-11 September game plan in West Asia.

On one of his tours of duty to New Delhi, recalls Zakaria, "A friend of my father's took me aside and he said, 'I want you to know how proud we all are of you.' That's the great thing about India. Success in America isn't considered selling out. They all think you have made it!" Zakaria perhaps tried to hide his shame behind a sign of exclamation. But there is no revelation in what his father's friend said — most members of the South Asian elite are so ashamed of being born in this region that all their energy is wasted in escaping from here rather than working to bring about meaningful change.

With such hollow men and empty women in positions of leadership, no South Asian country can hope to offer even a symbolic resistance if the two 'butchers' of Baghdad were to decide tomorrow that 'regime change' in this region is a necessary condition for the betterment of this region.

In the face of dire warning from invaders, Iraqis, to their credit, are still refusing to accept Ahmad Chalabi, a front man for Jay Garner. But if Farid Zakaria were to follow the warships of victorious Marines into Bombay, he would find friends of his father's falling over each other to garland him at the Gateway of India. They would not be doing anything new though. South Asians have greeted all outside victors with much gusto through the chequered history of this region. The British ruled with the support of native rulers, 'native informers' and native clerks. The freedom movement was a challenge to the continuation of their domination, but the partition of British India affected people's perspectives. The class-war in the Subcontinent lost before it could begin in right earnest — infantile patriotism ousted it from centre stage.

For the feudal-military elite of Pakistan, hawking the fear of India is the easiest way of maintaining its hold on power. Courting America is a logical corollary. It is not very different in India where 'security risk' has been elevated to such levels that to question it is tantamount to sacrilege. Ironically, the more India and Pakistan spend on 'defence', the shriller the call for even more resources for weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps because the elite of both countries knows that their progeny will not face the consequences of their monumental follies. Children of Pakistani and Indian bourgeoisie will be waving the star-spangled banner, just as their forefathers did the union jack.

Quite clearly, the Nehruvian design of producing indigenous ruling elite by cloning Oxford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has failed to deliver the desired results. All that those institutions have done is to produce either intellectual coolies for Western capitalism or to widen the gap between the 'best' and the rest. The chasm between brown sahibs and ethnic boxwallas on the one hand and agricultural labour and the coolies on the other has widened rather than decreased. Feudal lords at least had a vested interest in retaining their ties to the land; the professional elite would rather forget that bond.

The stress on 'quality of leadership' has failed to produce another Mahatma, one more Qaid, or another ekushe uprising. Meanwhile, Christina Rocca scolds Vajpayee, Musharraf, Wickremsinghe and Khalida Zia like so many little children. Islamabad and New Delhi may resume their relationship without the Marines barging in, but the Marines may yet come if the South Asian elite refuses to be assimilated in the society that has put it in a position of power.

The leaders might do well to remember that the people have very little to lose. Nobody fought for Saddam Hussain even though the Iraqis lost their country to the hated Anglo-Americans; it can only be worse if a similar misfortune were to befall South Asia.

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Himal Southasian