Saturday, June 04, 2011

Are we becoming a nation of big bores?

By Swapan Dasgupta

In my experience, there are three varieties of bores. First, there are the ordinary bores—usually well-meaning but incapable of extending a conversation beyond 'How is life?' Then there are the crashing bores, so full of themselves that they forget the effects of a dreary monologue on listeners. Finally, there are the thundering bores. They resemble a stuck gramophone record—repeating the same tune to the point of exasperation.

It may be singularly unpatriotic to say so, but India is edging close to becoming a thundering bore. A visiting dignitary has just got to step into the tarmac of the Delhi Airport before he/she is hounded by the question: "Do you support India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council?" The inquisitorial persistence is so marked that even the visiting President Barak Obama had to respond with a carefully-worded 'I do' just to ensure that his hosts weren't offended. In private, however, as WikiLeaks has so helpfully divulged, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sniggered at India being the "self-appointed front-runner" for membership into the P-5 closed shop.

Last month, even as people squirmed with embarrassment over the Government's boo-boos on the Most Wanted list, diplomats gloated over endorsements from Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and a reaffirmation by Russia of the UNSC bid. This relentless quest for approval was reminiscent of a R.K. Laxman cartoon from mid-1971 that showed All India Radio telling listeners that the Butterfly Collectors' Association had demanded the immediate recognition of (a still unborn) Bangladesh.

The analogy isn't misplaced. Just as India steadily built up diplomatic pressure on Pakistan and finally hit bull's eye with the formation of Bangladesh in December 1971, there is a calculation that sustained diplomatic hype will arm-twist the UN into giving India (along with Germany, Japan, Brazil and, presumably, South Africa) its due by the end of 2012—when India's present two-year UNSC term expires. India's accomplished Permanent Representative even went to the extent of telling the Times of India last January that "Once we get on, we're not going to get off."

The spectacle of the world's largest democracy asserting squatter's rights in the UNSC will be enthralling. India, it would seem, has convinced itself that a permanent UNSC seat is an immediate and realisable priority. Last month, India was a lead player in arguing that the successor to the infamous Dominic Strauss-Kahn in the International Monetary Fund should be chosen from a BRIC nation. It is not that India's positioning was prompted by a selfish desire to see its own man in the job. The abrupt regression to the politics of Third World entitlement was part of the larger build-up to the UNSC bid.

That a permanent place for India in the UN High Table will be spectacular boost to its self-esteem is undeniable. Already preening over projections of its economic might in 2025, a UNSC bonanza by the end of 2012 will catapult national arrogance into the stratosphere. If the quest for the Holy Grail is concluded so effortlessly, India may well begin to believe God holds an Indian passport. We may even see the transformation of the laid-back, 'we are like that only' Indian into the insufferable Indian.

Of course it is unlikely that greatness will come so easily. Apart from the procedures for changing the UN Charter to convert P-5 into P-10 being hugely cumbersome and time consuming, an assertive China isn't going to countenance the presence of India and Japan on the High Table. China's veto by itself makes the UNSC campaign a non-starter.

The determination of South Block to realise India's manifest destiny is to be admired. However, in trying to please everyone, India has got its priorities mixed up. It doesn't know whether to placate the P-5 or position itself as the only survivor of the Non-Aligned Movement. It couldn't decide whether to be primarily concerned with the safety of its own citizens in Libya or address the common good of Libyans. The result: India first abstained on the 'No fly zone' vote and subsequently turned into a megaphone for the African consensus.

Then there is India's stated commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. How does it square with a role in a UNSC built on the necessities of intrusiveness?

The sad reality is that internationalist posturing is just as specious today as it was when Jawaharlal Nehru put Egypt and Indonesia before Tibet and Burma. Today's India has to blend its relentless quest for economic power globally with intense political engagement in a troubled neighbourhood. It's good to think big, and about Libya, Darfur and Palestine, but it's rewarding to be practical and patient. The journey to greatness first involves an uphill journey to self-improvement.

Sunday Times of India, June 5, 2011

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