The world’s most powerful man in the world’s most dangerous place
The Coming of Bill Clinton
US presidents had graced the People’s Republic of China five times with state visits between 1971 and now, whereas the one earlier time India was accorded the privilege was when Jimmy Carter sipped chai with Morarji Desai in 1978 (Richard Nixon visited Rawalpindi in 1969). This tidbit is interesting as we proceed to analyse the coming and going of President Bill Clinton in the Subcontinent.
There were a couple of reasons why a lame duck president finally decided to pay us a visit. The first was economic. The monolithic might of undemocratic Red China has always stood as a proximate economic challenge to the US, whereas diverse and much more democratic South Asia has taken much longer to evolve as an economic powerhouse (well, at least in IT). The home-grown billionaires of Bangalore and Bombay can now no longer be ignored, and even Bangladesh is no longer Henry Kissinger’s “basket case”—all set as it is to export gas,
to India, if American multinationals have their way.
The second reason is, and we are in full agreement with the president, that South Asia is presently the “most dangerous place” on Earth. How can it be otherwise, when the tom-tomming of using the ultimate weapon is accompanied by the powder keg called Kashmir? Add to that the nationalist jingoism being orchestrated by unthinking satellite and print media…
But so far as the economic rationale behind the trip is concerned, let us understand that President Bill did not come over to be nice to Indians, Bangladeshis or Pakistanis. He was here to ensure that the larger slice of the South Asian market and productivity remains within the grasp of US business, be it in software production or natural gas. As long as this is understood, certainly, there is no harm in exploring how the economies of South Asia may themselves take advantage of the US economic juggernaut, whose boomtime just seems to go on and on and on.
On the issue of security, we find ourselves in disagreement with most editorialists of South Asia, and curiously in agreement with President Bill. Extreme embrace of nationalism and sovereignty can blind one to the fact that the Subcontinent does not deserve to be made more dangerous than it already is. After all, the majority of South Asians are poor, and what they need is food in the belly and not warhead on the missile.
So, why should we make a fuss if the Grand Duke of Duchy, let alone the president of the United States, were to come forward to offer good offices to resolve the India-Pakistan tangle. It is the insecure and the under-confident, after all, who are given to harping endlessly on sovereign status and who make it a matter of macho pride to reject mediation. Kashmir has been a flashpoint for decades, and it is even more so now with the nuclear posture of the two sides. The Kashmir problem has therefore to be tackled, with mediation or without it, and if this particular cat is bell’d, we suspect everyone will be surprised with the result.
Boom-time ‘Amrika’ holds all us South Asians in thrall—it is the real Shangri La with nary a competition in the uni-polar world. A world to be intellectually derided, even while our cousins, nephews and nieces desperately vie for green cards and naturalisation. Look at how the Indian foreign ministry and its political masters lobbied to get the president to bypass Islamabad. This loss of perspective can only be explained by the overwhelming importance accorded to the US in the minds of the Indian establishment—the endless re-runs and post-mortems on Indian satellite television after President Bill was long gone is proof enough.
And so onward and ahead with a liberali-sed, globalised South Asia. Let us become more corporate, more savvy, and more friendly with the United States. But while doing so, let us not forget that for every Bangalore IT dollar-billionaire, there are at least a hundred million paupers who are caught in a bind in this poverty-stricken, nuclear Subcontinent.
Billbhai and bin Laden
Despite all the saccharine ladled by Bill Clinton, his day-long visit to Dhaka constituted a most awesome display of American power, with Bangladesh forced once again into its straitjacket of poor but can-do country.
Bangladeshis wear nationalist sensitivity on their lapels, and so decided to be offended when the White House cancelled two high-profile appointments. One was a trip to the National Memorial, where laying a wreath in memory of the martyrs of 1971 is considered a matter of grave and obligatory protocol. Also scratched out was a 20-minute helicopter ride to Joypara, a hamlet where the mega-ngos, BRAC and Grameen, are both active.
Dhaka veterans were bemused. Someone seemed to believe in a clear-and-present security threat, in a country where political violence stops at the two major political parties getting at each other. True, it was after many a summer that the Bangla leftists had found a cause that promised them some visibility, but their smallish processions were easily smothered by the stout hand of the law. But then, ‘sources’ said that the real fear was not of washed-up communists but “Islamic terrorists”. The Afghan supporters of Osama Bin Laden were supposedly planning to cause Clinton grief in Bangladesh, and White House security managers decided to gamble with offending the hosts instead. To make up for his no-shows, Clinton made some needlessly placatory noises about Bangladesh’s “Islamic heritage, tolerance and unique culture”. But something seemed make believe.
It was clear that the Americans could have planned the first-ever visit by their president to Sonar Bangla better, and made it look less a token jaunt than it did. It did not help that for days after, Bangladeshis, glued to their television screens, saw Clinton and his daughter moving relatively freely across India.
If the hosts were indeed offended, did they receive anything for their troubles? Not much. An offer to write off over USD 750 million worth of debt was not forthcoming, nor was a pledge to consider favourably the case of illegal Bangla migrants in the States, who number in the tens of thousands. Sheikh Hasina Wajed had hoped that the US president would indicate an intention to extradite some of the killers of her father who are holed up in the US, but the president promised the prime minister nothing. He did not even refer to her father, Sheikh Mujib, as “father of the nation”.
Clinton announced a grant of USD 50 million to combat global warming, but it was actually money meant for all of South Asia. Bangladesh did become the first country that will start converting its dollar debt into forest cover, but the problems here are in the form of floods and cyclones, not forest loss.
Despite the genuflection towards micro-credit and environment, it was fairly obvious that the real focus of the day-long dash from Delhi was all in two sets of three letters ‘g-a-s’ and ‘o-i-l’. Bangladesh’s recently confirmed reserves are primed up and ready to be exploited, and US investment has shot up from USD 40 million to USD 750 million in the last four years. The suddenly significant US corporate lobby in Bangladesh has declared enticingly that the figure may jump to USD 3-4 billion if the “right decisions” are made.
Those decisions refer to allowing pros-pecting companies to sell the surplus gas to India, which is where the market lies. Sk. Hasina told the press after meeting Clinton that she would allow export only after confirming domestic supply for the next half-century. Being seen to help Indian consumers and industry is not a priority for Bangladeshi politicians, and so no major contracts were signed.
US companies have warned that they will pull out if exports are prohibited, which is especially worrying for Dhaka’s rich with their fingers already deep in the pie. But it is a little too early to believe the bluster. For the multinationals know, and the Dhaka elites know that they know, that a day will come when exports will have to begin.
Perhaps this is why Clinton did not press the point. The gas will be in the pipeline, sooner or later, with the US multinationals as hand-maidens.
Clintonsaab’s old flame
Bill Clinton courted India with the ardour of a smitten suitor, while the treatment he reserved for Pakistan can be likened to that meted out to an old girlfriend. An old flame who had to be told that it’s all over. However, the telling-off had to be done diplomatically, given her trouble-making potential and the intensity of the former relationship.
The seven-hour stopover in Islamabad was anti-climatic, given the all-out diplomatic efforts that went into ensuring that Clinton did make it to Pakistan. The only cause for celebration in Islamabad was that New Delhi had tried everything in the book to keep Clinton from visiting. The US president’s 15-minute live televised address to the Pakistani people was unprecedented, and reportedly a pre-condition for the stopover. Clinton was unequivocal if polite on the most important matter of Kashmir: “There is no military solution to Kashmir. No matter how great the grievance, it is wrong to support attacks against civilians across the Line of Control.”
In other words, Clinton had accepted the Indian contention that the Pakistan government has been exporting terrorism/militancy across the border. This is the widely-held view, even though the Pakistan government may go blue in the face denying it. General Pervez Musharraf’s think tank must recognise this perception even if the reality may be a bit more complex—it was the Americans who, with the Saudis first funded the jihadis during the bad old commie-Afghanistan days. They must therefore try and understand that Islamabad’s writ may not necessarily run all over the mujahideen fold.
However, even if the Chief Executive’s military-civilian government is not actively directing transgressions across the border, it is also true that its inaction against the religio-political parties who are training fighters and sending them across, is tantamount to supporting those parties. This, therefore, makes the Pakistan government a party to violations of the LoC.
A recent report in The Independent (London) by Robert Fisk, based on his visit to Maulana Samiul Haq’s Al-Haq College in Akora Khattak in the north of Pakistan, documents what just one institution has been up to on that count. Talking to Samiul Haq’s son Rashed, Fisk discovers various points of convergence between the right-wing and the military establishment. Both pledge to end corruption and bring about ‘real’ democracy, and both view Pakistan’s nuclear bomb as “a symbol of pride that is here to stay”. Fisk’s point is that because there is a fair degree of common ground, why would Pakistan heed Washing-ton’s demands. Besides, Pervez Musharraf
may be the most secular minded of men, but it is doubtful if he has the wherewithal to take on the thousands of armed ideologically-motivated fighters that the hundreds of madrassas in Pakistan have produced.
In his televised address to the Pakistani nation, Clinton also upheld the Indian refusal for third-party mediation in the disputed territory: “We (the USA) cannot and will not mediate or resolve the dispute in Kashmir. Only you and India can do that through dialogue.” But how this bilateral approach will work, when all such efforts have been stalemated over the past 50 years, goes unanswered. As one analyst bluntly put it, “…Pakistan cannot force the issue on its own. And the world will not intervene.”
In an interview to ABC television on 22 March, the US president also said, “I believe there are elements within the Pakistan govern-ment that have supported those who engaged in violence in Kashmir.” Which is as good as saying that the perpetrator of the tension between Indian and Pakistan is squarely the latter. In Islamabad, there is now the conviction that New Delhi’s posture on bilateral matters can only harden in the days ahead, now that its position has been largely endorsed by the world policeman. This may only heighten Pakistan’s insecurity as a smaller nation.
If India becomes more intransigent on the Kashmir issue and Pakistan becomes more friendless and unstable, it is debatable whether Bill Clinton’s visit to the “world’s most dan-gerous place” will not have actually left this “place” more dangerous than he found it.
Clintonji as First Tourist
Once upon a troubled time of guided missiles and nuclear bombs, the King of the Uni-polar World decided he should visit the King of the Jungle in his natural habitat, the Most Dangerous Place in the World, home to a fifth of the human race.
That the MDPW had within its expanse the breathtaking Taj Mahal was a bonus. Nearing the end of his reign, the youthful but aging ruler figured he couldn’t bow out as one of those pitiable few who had never seen the Taj. As he himself was later to tell the hosts’ Parliament, “The world is divided into two kinds of people—those who’ve seen it, and by golly those who haven’t.”
So, the First Daughter, First Mother-in-Law, First Dog and a massive First Entourage packed themselves into 77 planes and crossed the seven seas. Even before they landed, 200 unsmiling secret service agents had conducted a determined recce of New Delhi’s sewers. The citizenry watched goggle-eyed, mightily impressed by the diligent panache with which the sleuths confronted close encounters of the odoriferous kind. They, for one, really took in the sights and smells of India.
“Jai America!” shouted the otherwise dour men who run the BJP-combine which runs India. Meanwhile, the global headman-turned- First Tourist did the regulars—Rajghat in Delhi, the Taj in Agra, Amer Fort in Jaipur, and the Ranthambore wild-life sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
He found peace and forgiveness at Rajghat, looking properly contrite at the Mahatma Memorial, only that he did not know the proper Hindu way of offering flowers, and so ended up flailing his arms about as if he were treading on water. Subsequently, the First Hand planted a magnolia sapling, which if it survives the upcoming dry season, will grow to be a crowd-puller in its own right.
The ancient Taj did all right by Shah’n Shah Bill. Not since Emperor Shah Jahan built his labour of love had so much been spent at one go on the monument—INR 80 lakh for a full body treatment including special chemical wash, new plantings and trimmings, polished doors and new benches. On the way in, potholes had been filled, and dirty walls whitewashed. The clamour and colour of real Uttar Pradesh was carefully screened from the First Eyes. But earthy India did cock an impudent snook at this massive cover-up in the form of a string of multi-coloured underpants and towels hanging out to dry from the Saheli Burj just outside Taj’s main gate. The Super President could not have missed it.
After the regulatory photo-op before the reflecting pool, the prez of the most environmentally unsustainable economy in the globe by far lectured India on greenhouse gases and global warming. India’s endorsement of every word emanating from Bill’s lips came in the form of the hit title track Tu Mera, Tu Mera, Tu Mera, Tu Mera, Tu Mera, Tu Mera, Hero Number One! Someone had hit the play button right after the speech ended.
Onwards, then, to Jaipur, city of myths and maharajas, where the president while inspecting the regal Amer fort came face to face with his nemesis—oh no!—the elephant. Someone genetically predisposed to sabotage the meeting of the largest and the second largest democracy had lined up a whole row of gaily caparisoned elephants, trying to pass these beasts as native to the Subcontinent and worthy of a ride by Clintonji. Of course, the president could not ride the Republican party mascot in an election year, that too with his wife confronting Rudy Giuliani in New York. And the Indians were quite unwilling to produce an ass, the Democratic choice, for it would be a retrograde step back into the Third World ghetto that we are working so hard to slither out of.
So if not the domesticated elephant and ass, why not the king of the jungle, the Royal Bengal Tiger of Madhya Pradesh? But before that, a word on the culinary trail—raans, kebabs, dal makhni, sizzling gobhi, phirni out of clay pots and kulfis—all washed down with wondrous Diet Coke. And then a picnic lunch was packed for the jeep safari.
The jeep crept along the rugged terrain of the Ranthambore forest in search of the elusive feline. The expedition almost ended in failure, but one was finally spotted, inspecting the cavalcade closely from behind some tall grass. The big cat soon got bored. S/he started grooming, then looked at the president, and yawned. We may not yet be a tiger economy, but we sure do have the real thing, was the message. Move along, then.