Saturday, July 24, 2010

India’s Ozymandias syndrome By: Jawed Naqvi

“…We are both Indian and we belong to a very mature democracy. We are proud of that. We look at transacting relations with our neighbours in a very mature and balanced way.

“And that is the approach that India brings to these talks. I do not want to comment or pontificate on Pakistan’s attitude. That is for Pakistan to introspect about. And I hope they will turn the searchlight inwards on themselves and understand where the problems lie.”

The strong views were shared by India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao with a TV reporter. This was just a day after the Delhi-Islamabad foreign ministers’ meeting turned into a bruising media show. Indeed, from the days when Gunnar Myrdal described Pakistani diplomats in the Asian Drama in the 1960s as better gifted with conviviality and social graces than their Indian counterparts there has been a marked change in the calibre, one that should not flatter anyone in Islamabad. Last week’s events there were proof if any is required.

So Ms Rao’s implied critique of Pakistan was completely justified. However, her self-praise as a counterpoint was an unnecessary exaggeration. Firstly there is no known link between the quality of diplomacy projected by a country and its proximity to democracy. Be it Soviet diplomacy under Andrei Gromyko and his many remarkable successors, or Chinese diplomacy since the days of Zhou En-lai, they impacted on India with negligible signs of an equal response from the fabled maturity of Delhi’s stewards of democracy.

Gromyko kept India wrapped in the warmth of a debilitating bear hug, scarcely allowing its mesmerised leaders to breathe without feeling grateful to the Soviet clasp. The less than democratic Chinese, meanwhile, encircled India — not militarily but politically — with all the independent nations of the subcontinent who as India’s neighbours should have felt closer to New Delhi not to Beijing.Whether it was Nepal or Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh they all ganged up, as Gen Hossain Ershad, host of the first Saarc summit in Dhaka in 1985, told me, “Because we were all allergic to India.”

Moreover, so-called mature democracies can be very hollow systems. Britain was a parliamentary democracy when it colonised India. And it was another great democracy that wreaked havoc on helpless Japanese civilians whose ill-effects have not completely waned. It was as a representative of a powerful democracy that Robert McNamara justified his horrific massacres in Vietnam.

As for India’s mature democracy, it was the only country in the world, according to a Pew survey, where George W. Bush, shunned and disowned by dictators and democracies alike, was celebrated as a popular hero.

Compared to Pakistan’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s peevishness, India’s Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna presented a picture of dignity in Islamabad last week. However, did he represent a mature democracy in Pakistan? I wish he did.

Cast your eyes at the state of Karnataka, where he was chief minister not long ago and from where he derives political legitimacy. What was the most democratic issue gripping everybody there precisely when Mr Krishna was on a fence-mending visit to Islamabad?

There was fury there over a border city called Belgaum. In a completely parochial (and I dare say typically Indian) campaign, an old genie was let loose by Mr Krishna’s Congress party rulers in Maharashtra to lay claim on Belgaum which has a substantial population of Marathi speakers.

The move put Mr Krishna and his other Congress colleagues in such a fix in Karnataka that their position on Belgaum rather than his achievements as foreign minister would determine his political future. Serious water-sharing disputes between Indian states have remained unsettled in 65 years of independence. They make differences over the sharing of water with Pakistan look like a picnic.

I do not know what defines the mature democracy that Ms Rao refers to. She probably had in mind the Nehruvian vision of equitable growth at home and a towering presence in world affairs. It was undoubtedly his economic vision that informed Nehru’s foreign policy — solidarity of developing nations opposed to the self-serving waywardness of superpowers. But that was shunned by Dr Manmohan Singh 20 years ago.

Just when Mr Krishna was visiting Islamabad last week, an improbable news item must have disturbed him. In a week when Delhi’s new world-class airport opened for business and the Indian Space Research Organisation celebrated the successful launch of five new satellites, it had a stark reminder of another India that, increasingly, many Indians feel embarrassed to talk about.

A UN-backed study by Oxford University revealed that poverty in at least eight Indian states — Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — was worse than in some of the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

The findings are based on a global poverty index, the Multidimensional Poverty Index or MPI, developed by Oxford University. It takes into account a range of social factors not hitherto considered while measuring poverty and will replace the Human Poverty Index which, until now, has formed the basis for the annual UN human development reports.

In the land of Kabir and other matchless sages, including Nehru, who cautioned against the temptations of false vanity, Indian diplomacy’s superior airs never fail to remind me of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley. Or as the charming historian and Nehru’s biographer Prof S. Gopal would describe it — “an imposing structure on crumbling grounds”.

Shelley might as well have taken his inspiration from Kabir, who roamed the villages of India in the pre-Mughal era or Mir Taqi who said in the 19th century: “Jis sar ko ghuroor aaj hai yaa’n taajwarika; kal uspe yahin shor hai phir nioha gari ka.”

Shelley’s version of Mir’s thoughts went thus:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I think just as Pakistan needs to look inward, as rightly counselled by the representative of Delhi, India too needs to reach out to its waning ancient sagacity. Conceit of any kind doesn’t help anyone. It didn’t help Ozymandias.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

No comments: