THE French faculty graduate was table tennis captain of her school team in Mumbai. When she beat Shannay Saahab from Lucknow 11-nil in a friendly match at the hostel mess in JNU, he pretended to look unimpressed. Shannay Saahab dropped the racquet on the table, smiled at the ceiling fan, and proclaimed: “I somehow prefer cricket.” Which is more or less what Prime Minister Modi did in Delhi last week. He had not been scoring well in his own backyard with the eight-nation Saarc club. So he dropped the racquet on the table, as it were, saying à la Shannay Saahab: ‘I somehow prefer Asean.’
To get the perspective right, India under Mr Modi has hosted a clutch of multilateral meetings, including BRICS and with African states. But Modi has not allowed Pakistan to host the Saarc summit, which was due in Islamabad last year. Indian officials have cited terrorism as a reason for stalling the meet although earlier leaders are on record as accepting in their bilateral pacts that terrorism though a major challenge for both sides, should not be allowed to disrupt the progress of their ties.
Saarc’s history is, however, littered with India-sponsored interruptions. On one occasion after delaying a meeting in Kathmandu with no clear objective, prime minister Vajpayee found himself shaking hands with Gen Musharraf. The look of disbelief on Vajpayee’s face contrasted with the relief on everyone else’s as Musharraf finished his speech and walked up to a surprised Vajpayee to clasp his hands. But this was not before Vajpayee forced the Pakistani dictator to fly in to Nepal through the Chinese air corridor — an unintended outcome of a miscalculated stance. India has similarly goofed up on its ties with Sri Lanka, Nepal and even the Maldives.
A less discussed fact about India’s Republic Day celebrations is couched in history and it should really disturb the current administration in Delhi. There was a time when bilateral irritants and multilateral misgivings were part of a package everyone in South Asia tried earnestly to deal with. And so leaders from every country in South Asia barring Bangladesh, strangely enough, have been invited as chief guest at the Jan 26 parade.
What was the point of assembling the 10 leaders en masse to watch a parade replete with nuclear-capable missiles?
Prime Minister Modi can curse his Congress predecessors, something he does with ready ease, for the apparent indiscretion, if you like, of inviting Pakistan’s governor general Malik Ghulam Muhammad in 1955 and food and agriculture minister Rana Abdul Hamid (of all people) in 1965 — the year they were to go to war — as chief guests at the Republic Day parade. Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan’s king Zahir Shah have blessed the Indian republic with their presence despite occasional or deeper bilateral misgivings.
Last week saw all 10 leaders of Asean trooping in as Mr Modi’s guests of honour. For Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar it was a special occasion as it was their first outing to the show. Indonesian leaders seem to be Delhi’s favourite since they have been chief guests thrice starting with president Sukarno who was Nehru’s buddy in 1950 when he inaugurated the first Republic Day celebrations.
For the record, China sent Marshall Ye Jianying in 1958 while South Korea, Australia and Japan have all been invited by India from the Pacific region. That leaves North Korea and New Zealand as the odd birds from the Pacific yet to bless Delhi’s British-built Rajpath.
But what was the point of assembling the 10 leaders en masse to watch a parade replete with nuclear-capable missiles? If Mr Modi was sending a signal to China, as is commonly believed, he is ignoring the fact that China and South East Asia bond better as trade partners than India does with anyone. In fact, the Asean-China FTA (ACFTA) has played a major role in regional economic integration for both sides. Of particular interest to Mr Modi should be the fact that the regional trade pact has come with large amounts of FDI inﬂow whose stock in member countries reached $2.15 trillion in 2012, accounting for 9.4 per cent of the world total FDI. If a fraction of that FDI could come India’s way, Mr Modi should consider his Republic Day jamboree a worthwhile effort.
I was driving through Beijing with a Chinese minder during prime minister Narasimha Rao’s visit there in 1993. The Rao-Li Peng summit produced a landmark agreement on keeping the borders tranquil. To indicate how China plans it plans in fine detail, an agreement with Rao was thrown in to export a dozen Indian buffalos to kick-start Beijing’s campaign to host the Olympics. China had no dairy culture then, and it was getting ready to cater to a world that lived on milk.
I asked my minder about the flags bearing Chinese inscription. Were they meant to greet Mr Rao? The minder struggled to cushion the rude surprise: “Some of these flags are from the recent visit of the deputy prime minister of Thailand. Some flags are to celebrate our special friendship with our hero Lee Kuan Yew. Most flags are about our Olympic campaign [which China lost to Western subterfuge that year]. I’m sorry, there’s nothing for Mr Rao who we respect as an important neighbour.”
It may be useful for gung-ho Indian analysts to understand Singapore’s close ties in particular with China’s pantheon of leaders. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew was the only global leader who met all five Chinese Communist Party leaders, from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, the latter in his avatar as an up-and-coming party leader. How do you suppose Lee’s son, and others in the Asean team, saw the nuclear missiles on display in Delhi? Would they not want Mr Modi to pick up the more reliable racquet to play the one game he could win by just playing it?
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2018