Wary lies the dragon

Ever present high wind
Sweeps the fog in Blocking all that is dear to the eyes.
There is a lull, the air rests.
The fog remains.

–Gujarati poet Sitanshu Yashchandra in Encirclement

American stimulus is still working wonders in South Asia. Hamid Karzai, the 'former' UNOCAL employee, has convinced General Musharraf that the benefits far outweigh the costs of pursuing local warlords in the Hindukush. Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, His Military Lord's most loyal premier of Pakistan, has realised that the promise of Pakistan-India talks is a good ruse to push the controversial Legal Framework Order to the back burner. Musharraf can remain president-in-uniform as long as he can assure the Islamabad elite that he has the blessings of the top brass in the 'war on terror'.

In the excitement of being invited to the high table of the G8 in Evian, France, Atal Behari Vajpayee is once again singing the kavita of the Lahore-Amritsar peace process. Vajpayee's promise that he will retire from active politics if he fails to normalise the relationship between the two nuclearised twins is largely symbolic – the Bhartiya Janata Party's agenda is firmly in the hands of its hawks who dream of an America-Israel-India military axis.

Weak kneed – no intended dig at the septuagenarian Atalji – politicians of the non-aligned school have no place in the hyper-power scheme of things fashioned by Subcontinental and American Bushies. The loyalty of South Asian neocons is rewarded with invitations for Musharraf to the White House, and some fancy Israeli toys for George Fernandes (he of the 'China is the main enemy' fame).

With a heat wave sweeping much of peninsular India, it is just as well that Colombo has agreed to grant Vellupillai Prabhakaran's Tigers a face-saving device in Jaffna. Lieutenant General Satish Nambiar will advise Colombo and the Tigers on the stickiest issue of all – de-escalation. Apparently ex-Indian peacekeepers still have their uses in Sri Lanka.

The summer after Basra seems to have warmed up neighbourly relations all over South Asia. Bangladesh and Burma have just concluded three-day border talks with the signing of Joint Record of Discussions. The Rohingya refugees were ignored but the two sides exchanged pleasantries for the press to prove to the diplomatic mission of a particular power that they do not need prodding.

Dhaka also hosted Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. While Sibal engaged his Bangladeshi counterpart Shamsher Mobin Chowdhary in diplomatic niceties, real negotiations were held between the Border Security Force and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) on the challenges of patrolling the 4095 km border. Whether the straight-talking Sibal managed to instil the fear of the eagle flying over South Asian is not yet clear, but the BDR brass must learn that even the suspicion of harbouring United Liberation Front of Assam and All Tripura Tiger Force militants will do Dhaka's image incalculable harm.

Royal ride
On 1 June 2003, it will be two years since the Narayanhiti massacre, but that unprecedented event in world history has already been forgotten, lessons about the perils of a closed palace remaining unlearnt. Many of the shaven-headed hoodlums who were railing against King Gyanendra back then now hold rallies in support of his 4 October 2002 dismissal of the elected government.

Meanwhile, the Royal Nepal Army has been uncharacteristically circumspect in criticising the Maoist-government 'understanding' of confining soldier movement to a five-kilometre perimeter of existing barracks, but it actually issued a strong statement opposing the peaceful 'people's movement' started by the five mainstream political parties of the country.

Irony has taken residence in Narayanhiti Palace and Singha Durbar (the first housing the king and the second the secretariat of the government appointed by him), for they are wooing armed insurgents fighting for a republic while doing everything in their power to discredit parliamentary parties committed to a constitutional monarchy. But even by the standards of "yo Nepal ho" ('this is Nepal, what to do'), the acquiescence of the government team in negotiation with the Bhutanese delegation to grant Lhotshampa refugees Nepali citizenship is unbelievably inept. It defies even elementary political logic.

Granted that forcing Lhotshampas back to Bhutan before a 'regime change' in Thimphu would be akin to throwing them back to the wolves that had driven them from their homes in the first place. Yet, Singha Durbar owes an explanation at least to all the international organisations that helped the refugees survive in the camps of southeast Nepal for over a decade.

The power elite of Kathmandu never discloses the motivations of the state to the people, but has Nepal taken donors and INGOs and the UNHCR for a royal ride? Things are so bad that there is even a bright side to this bleak deal. And that is that if any government could take such a politically suicidal decision, it was the one composed of King Gyanendra's newfound loyalists. The king finally had to let go of them when the cabinet formed by him 'resigned' under mounting public pressure and street protests by the main parliamentary parties. But the riddle remains: why is Kathmandu paying such a heavy price to keep Thimphu in good humour?

Oblivious of all this – the failure on the foreign policy front, the near stalemate in government-Maoist talks, and the suspension of democratic process – the glitterati of Kathmandu are still celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first ascent on Mount Everest.

Meanwhile, as they have done for so long, Nepali commentators continue to find it necessary to debate the 'citizenship' of summiteer Tenzing Norgay. Born in the lap of Chomolongma on the 'Tibetan' side, brought up in the shadows of Sagarmatha on the Nepali side, and sustained by those who wanted to climb Mount Everest, Tenzing knew that all these were merely names of the same peak. He was, and remained, a true Himali – a citizen of the highest mountain ranges in the world. With the benefit of hindsight, one can perhaps call this Tibetan-Nepali-Indian a true South Asian.

Himalayan thaw
It is interesting how people can climb Mount Everest one day and be in Kathmandu to be feted within two days courtesy the helicopter conveyor belt service to base camp. It used to take weeks. While mountaineers from all over the world were falling over each other in self-congratulation in Kathmandu during the weeklong festivities, Chinese climbers went ahead and broadcast the first live television pictures from the summit of Chomolongma. Yet another example of a diligent tortoise of the Middle Kingdom that just keeps at it while the rest of the world including South Asia, rabbits all, give themselves to laziness and celebration.

Right up to China's entry into the WTO, 'let the sleeping dragon lie' had been the cautious approach of the West towards Beijing. But after the unilateral colonisation of Iraq by American forces, the West is no longer a monolith that it used to be in the cold war years. The break-up with 'old Europe' was indicative, and Beijing woke up to the reality that it cannot evade a global role and responsibility. However hard it may try to project itself as an unwilling conscript in the 'war on terror', it will not be allowed to march into Taipei as a reward for good global behaviour.

The rhetoric about the dangers of the 'axis of evil' notwithstanding, it is almost clear that the most 'embedded' intellectuals of the American academia have their eyes firmly fixed on the rising star in the east. It has recently been pointed out that Chinese defence spending is growing at the rate of 17 percent every year; the economy is already the second largest in the world, right after the United States, in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms. If empires survive by preventing the rise of an emergent challenger, the great game of the 21st century will most likely be played in the backyard of South Asia.

The real test of Atal Behari Vajpayee's diplomatic mettle is not the restart of Indo-Pak talks, which will happen sooner or later. To ensure a place for himself in the history books, Atalji needs to initiate the process of the 'Himalayan thaw'. He needs to save up his khadi boli couplets not for Lahore, but for Beijing. And get a competent Chinese translator before taking the flight 'over the hump' of Arunachal (claimed by Beijing) into the Chinese mainland.

Both China and India have punched much below their weight in international affairs, and this largely because they do not have confidence in each other. New Delhi wastes all its diplomatic energy on its small neighbours. Similarly laughable (in the international geopolitical context) is Beijing's obsession with Taiwan, especially since the encirclement being promoted by geo-strategists across the Atlantic is tightening, India being thus far a willing participant in this low-key play.

During his visit to South Asia in March 2000, Bill Clinton had proposed his "four-r formula" for the normalisation of Pakistan-India relations. These were: respect for the LoC, rejection of violence to settle the border issue, a resumption of dialogue, and restraint.

Actually these are even more appropriate to resolve the longstanding Sino-Indian border disputes. There is no reason why the Clintonian roadmap cannot be followed to bring nearly 2.3 billion people of the planet closer.

The groggy dragon must wake up and take a close look in the mirror. The elephant must stop dancing and begin using its legendary brain, thus far underused in the arena of international diplomacy. The Asian century beckons, but it cannot wait for the giants forever, nor can it happen without the giants.

Pawan Chamling, the street-smart political survivor of Sikkim, wants to begin a bus service between Gangtok and Lhasa over the Nathu La pass and Chumbi valley. May Vajpayee accompany His Holiness the Dalai Lama on its maiden journey, and may the great sage Padmasambhava bless this mad wish to make it reality.

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Himal Southasian