Saturday, October 14, 2006

PM foreign to real issues (October 15, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

We are in that phase of a government’s life when prime ministers, and the retinue around them, start experiencing the monotony of national existence. When that happens, convention demands that the gaze of the Prime Minister’s Office is conveniently diverted to “pressing international concerns”—with pleasurable consequences.

For the past two months, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has displayed an over-weaning anxiety to optimise his air-miles. First, there was the long haul to Brazil followed by the quixotic sojourn in Havana—the high point being Fidel Castro’s reminiscences of PL-480 shipments to India. Then there was the Gandhigiri trip to South Africa—a visit which intrigued the hosts and confused the Zulu protestors in Durban. (Question for Kaun Banega Crorepati: Which Indian Prime Minister in recent times hasn’t visited the railway station in Pietermaritzburg?)

Last week, the Prime Minister was in England to collect an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. True, there was also a courtesy call on Tony Blair and the mandatory conviviality with the same businessmen he met two days before in Mumbai, but these were obligatory add-ons to confer an official gloss on a worthwhile private visit.

Yet, there is no need to be accusatory. Prime Ministers have made foreign visits for far flimsier reasons. In 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee spent two agreeable days in Cyprus, en-route to an avoidable India-EU summit in Copenhagen. The only apparent reason was to release a Greek translation of his poetry!

Of course, Manmohan could have made much more of his well-deserved honour from Cambridge. After all, how many Indian notables can match his scholarly credentials? Unlike him, most of those using the prefix Doctor possess honorary degrees.

Last year in Oxford he provoked xenophobes at home with a subtle endorsement of the “coconut” trail, his thank you speech. Last week’s Cambridge performance was unmentionably soporific. It was dotted with the pedestrian eloquence of the JNU kind: “The gap between the rich and the poor is widening… My appeal is that developed countries should not allow short-term national interests to prevail at the cost of promoting freer trade and combating poverty. The prosperity of so many cannot be sacrificed for protecting the interests of so few.” There were also the adulatory references to Jawaharlal Nehru—the head of the family—and Joan Robinson, the socialist economist whose dogmatic influence set the Indian economy back by many decades.

No wonder the Cambridge address secured the ungrudging approval of the certifying authority of progressivism: The Hindu.

Then it was off to what business journalists call the Nokia junket. Normally Finland is not on any itinerary but this year Helsinki was hosting yet another India-EU summit.

A prime ministerial visit to a Scandinavian country is best avoided. It is one thing for the Indian Prime Minister to engage periodically—even if it is by way of a courtesy call en-route to Cambridge—with someone like Blair who knows India, acknowledges its global significance and, most important, is totally at ease with Indian sensitivities; dealing with sanctimonious Scandinavians is a different ball game. Being unable to comprehend the clutter of Indian democracy and the array of the Indian experience, the countries of Northern Europe have been accustomed to treating India on par with say, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, bywords for ethnic strife and poverty. As exporters of conflict resolution and foreign aid, they have never quite grasped India’s nuclear imperatives nor really understood why President George Bush insists on treating New Delhi differently from Pyongyang.

Four years ago, Vajpayee was subjected to a gratuitous Viking sermon on Kashmir and last week Manmohan had to undergo the ignominy of the Finnish Prime Minister sitting in judgment on India’s nuclear programme. The issue is not why Finns are the way they are; the problem lies in India running after foreign testimonials. To justify a grand visit with full entourage, the flatterers prepared the curious headline: “Finland supports Indo-US nuke deal”; what they got instead was “Finland snubs India.”

Pity no one asked the Finns about India’s permanent membership of the UNSC!

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 15, 2006)

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