When you left even the stones were buried: The defenceless would have no weapons. When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks, who collects its fallen fleece from the slopes? O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished, who weighs the hairs on the jeweller’s balance? They make a desolation and call it peace.
– Agha Shahid Ali, Farewell
The world began to change on ‘9/20’, the day George Bush declared, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. Not wanting to be known as a friend of Osama and his in-laws in Kabul, even General Musharraf fell in line. The self-appointed president of Pakistan declared his country the frontline state of America’s “War on Terror”.
It is now almost a year since daisy cutters started to rain on the desert landscape of the Hindukush, but Bush shows no signs of slowing down. Unsuccessful in nabbing Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”, the Texan cowboy is now set to vent his frustrations on Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq. The tone and tenor of Bush’s warning to the rest of the world is still the same: do not dare question the White House. The right reigns in the United States, and American unilateralism rules the world.
In addition to making the global right unite under the American umbrella, the 20 September declaration initiated the process of suppression of all dissenting voices. So when Israel bombarded the Palestinian leader’s official residence on a flimsy pretext, there were no protest rallies even in Sweden, home of the Nobel Academy that awarded its peace prize to Yasser Arafat in 1994. Just an announcement of intention by the White House that America may go after Saddam on its own was enough to transform prime minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair into HE Blair, ambassador-at-large for the United States. More than 11 September, it is 20 September that seems to have really changed the world we live in.
Increasingly, no one else but Americans seems to matter in global affairs. Hence, it was entirely appropriate for the representatives of more than 100 countries, in New York this September for the annual General Assembly session, to proceed to the site of the terrible tragedy on the 11th to pay their homage. Each one present on that solemn occasion paid their respects to the dead in their own way. The Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, sprinkled the ground with the gangajal that he had carried across the seven seas.
There is nothing inherently wrong in the head of government of an independent country making a pilgrimage to the site of human tragedy anywhere. Perhaps some day George Bush too will travel to Kashmir to pay his respects to the victims of 50 years of insurgent violence and state repression. By travelling to the WTC site, Vajpayee proved that he still has a poet’s heart, even though this is less and less evident in his own country. But the real matter of concern is the near surrender of South Block to the foreign policy goals of the United States. Take it from me: India is no longer the voice of conscience of the countries of the third world, including South Asia.
Around a year ago, I heard former Indian diplomat Muchkund Dubey repeat the well worn mantra of practical diplomacy, “countries have no permanent friends, only permanent interests”, at a talk fest in Delhi’s India International Centre. Still, the downward slide of India’s stature in the world does not cease to amaze me. This is bad news for all of us in South Asia, because if India loses its voice, it is unlikely that any one in the world will care to hear what Bangladesh, Nepal or even Pakistan has to say about issues of global concern. The irrelevance of India was more than clear at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg (Aug-Sept 2002), where New Delhi failed to draw the world’s attention to its concerns. While the foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, gamely tried to respond to queries on globalisation, the head of delegation, TR Balu, was a far cry from Kamal Nath at the original UN environmental meet at Rio a decade ago. The only point made by the Indian delegation to Johannesburg seemed to be a petulant response to the United Nations Environment Programme report on the Asian Brown Cloud, which New Delhi believes is premature and the scientific credentials of which it questions.
Ever since he has been a member of parliament, Atal Behari Vajpayee has loved going to the General Assembly to relax in the relative anonymity of the United Nations. Not that this was afforded him as prime minister, but he may have thought of travelling to Johannesburg rather than New York City this year. South Africa takes pride in the fact that it was the site of the transformation of barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi, and the presence of an Indian prime minister would have added lustre to this showcase event of the Mbeki government.
As the head of government of the largest democratic country in the world, which also happens to be economically rather weak, by his mere presence the prime minister would have shown the despotic rulers of Africa that the poor value their political rights as much, if not more, than the rich. Or could it be that he absented himself from Johannesburg because he could not bear to show his face in a country (South Africa) that has refused to go nuclear despite its ability to do so?
Meanwhile, back home, New Delhi has further improved its international citizenry by becoming the second largest buyer in the global arms bazaar – that too after going nuclear. By unequivocally aligning itself with the United States and Israel, New Delhi has vacated the moral high ground in global affairs (and, internally, it has begun to speak for the urban middle class rather than the rural masses that actually make up the country). India commands respect neither because of its military might, like Russia, nor its economic clout, like China. It stands tall in the comity of nations on the back of its democracy, but seems to value this less and less.
South Block diplomats now seem to have resigned themselves to the ignominy of being equated with Pakistan in global affairs. No wonder, even Musharraf’s feeble protest against Bush’s intentions of going after Saddam Hussein sounds more emphatic than the ambiguities and contradictions emanating from New Delhi. This must be galling for Indian foreign service officers, drawn from among the best and brightest of civil service recruits and socialised in Nehruvian foreign affairs philosophy.
It is not difficult to put a date to the process that has reduced India’s stature from spokes-country for the third world to regional geopolitical power – May 1998, the month of Pokhran II, which invited the response of Chagai. But when foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, offered India as a base to the United States to conduct their ‘War on Terror’, New Delhi was practically prostrating itself at the feet of Busheshwar. Even as the White House deity snubbed Singh and went with Musharraf, India lost its independent, questioning voice. Pretty soon, the saffron strongman LK Advani, now deputy prime minister, was publicly singing paeans in praise of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former right-wing prime minister of Israel, and the role of India in Arab affairs was reduced to zero, the original contribution of Bharat to Arab arithmetic.
Region on the margins
It seems none of the leaders of South Asia have any illusion about their role in world affairs, and this was evident in the way they shunned Johannesburg. Nepal’s prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, left for Johannesburg with much fanfare, planning to make a mark as the current chairman of SAARC. But he stopped by in Belgium (it seems to finalise an arms deal), went over to London for a private visit, and came back home on the pretext of a hastily arranged breakfast meet with the Thai premier in Bangkok. Begum Zia too could not make it to Rio+10, just as she had been unable to attend Rio itself in 1992. Sri Lanka obviously had other priorities, as did General Musharraf. So South Asia had to be content in Johannesburg with the prime minister of Bhutan promoting the message of his king about the importance of Gross National Happiness. Luckily, President Gayoom was there to speak passionately for environmental goals (as he always has) to keep his archipelago from being swamped by global warming. Countries of the region have also lost the ability to help each other in times of trouble. Tamils and Sinhalas of Sri Lanka are talking in Thailand, and the facilitator is a Norwegian. Ever since Deuba got a darshan of Busheshwar at the oval temple, all manner of American advisors have been advising Singha Durbar on ways of tackling Maoist insurgency.
Not that there is anyone in Nepal who is listening (least of all Deuba, a terrible communicator) and with good reason. Begum Zia desperately wants buyers for her natural gas hoard, but she does not want to sell it to India. Bhutan too may finally lose the will to finagle and resist, and finally accept its exiled citizens back – but only if, say, Germany or Japan intervenes. Do not expect New Delhi to try and roll back the unjust situation that keeps a hundred thousand Lhotshampa refugees languishing in the southeast Tarai of Nepal. Was the diehard colonialist Winston Churchill right that Indians (by whom we mean most South Asians of today) are unfit to rule themselves?
It is not just politics and diplomacy, even the intellectual leadership required to reaffirm the bonds of unity between the people of South Asia is singularly lacking. If we accept that Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology was a product of his experiences in South Africa, then it is difficult to find even one person in the modern era in this entire region that thought and lived like a South Asian, and was not just a ‘proud’ citizen of any one of our artificially constructed nation-states. Nepal’s BP Koirala may perhaps have been the exception, but he spent his entire life struggling to establish democratic rule in his own country, and was unable to give much time to regional imperatives.
The question that BR Ambedkar asked more than half a century ago is still valid: Despite an intellectual tradition millennia old, why could brahmins not produce a single Voltaire? Intellectuals of Islamabad, Dhaka and Colombo too are merely brahmins without the sacred thread, and they too need to mull over this matter as much as the twice-born elites of New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Trivandrum, Guwahati and Kathmandu. As long as the region cannot come up with its own political and diplomatic agenda, our countries will be forced to follow the path chosen by the power of the day, even if that happens to be Bush junior.
India and Pakistan are adamant in their posturing, and they are happy that this is attracting a bevy of American interlocutors every other month, Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca being the most recent trippie. Ostensibly, she was in the Indian capital to attend a conference of chiefs of missions of the South Asian region. But who is to say that she was not carrying a diplomatic gun to get South Block to endorse US plans for Baghdad. Unfortunately, that is an offer neither Musharraf nor Vajpayee can afford to refuse, whatever their convictions may be. But are we not ourselves responsible for such diplomatic impotence in our leadership?
Once the Soviet Union had to intervene to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table. To defuse Kargil, the president of the United States had to use his clout in Islamabad. If Musharraf and Vajpayee do not start talking to each other now, it will not be long before Zhu Rongji will feel obliged to invite them to dinner. As it is, India is paying a heavy diplomatic price to keep Beijing in good humour – recently, it had to abstain on a UN vote that decided to bar Tibetan groups from Johannesburg after fierce lobbying by China.
A region with more than one-sixth of the world population and at least 6000 years of civilisation needs to move by itself rather than under the directions of a deity in a faraway land, or his nemesis saint Osama nearer home. But, as we all know, South Asia must get its act together at home before it can begin to make a difference on the world stage. South Asia will have come into its own when its most powerful country is able to raise objections at Ramallah being turned into Tora Bora.