The professor’s delinquent students

Published April 9, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi

THE zero from the large ‘G20’ image created with a mesh of wires has vanished. It was placed ambitiously over a tall footbridge near the venue where the G20 summit took place last September.

Whether someone took it away as a memento or sold it as scrap, or if the hastily minted zero flew away on a windy day, hardly matters. With a bevy of pliable TV channels, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could verily interpret the remaining G2 image as something more exclusive than G20.

He has already conjured a diplomatic advantage from the routine annual event, which nobody other than some ministers and his avid party supporters are able to divine. G20 summits happen annually in different member countries, the next one being scheduled without the needless fanfare in Lula da Silva’s Brazil.

Mr Modi, however, shrewdly used his turn as host to flaunt India as a Vishwa guru, a global professor, as it were, and there are not just a few that see the self-congratulatory boast as a national triumph. However, a strange problem has arisen for the global professor over his 10 years in office. The entire neighbourhood has fled the class. He seemed to have been an agreeable yoga teacher, but after they saw him asking people to bang their kitchen utensils to drive away the Covid virus, the children turned their interest to less contrived Confucius.

Foreign policies of nations are an extension of their domestic truth, the adage goes. Among the reasons, other than the unconvincing one about corruption, for which Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was thrown into prison is that he told the packed Delhi assembly before his arrest the story of a fourth class pass king who, because of his poor education, pushed terrible policies like demonitisation that crippled his country’s economy. Kejriwal likened the allegorical king to the mediaeval Tughlaq sultan of Delhi, and this barb must have rankled the professor.

The fact is that every leader in South Asia, except perhaps those ruling Afghanistan, has a verifiable educational degree to back their claim to acceptability. The prime minister of Pakistan is a graduate from Lahore’s Government College University, while his Bangladesh counterpart graduated in Bengali literature from a reputed institute in Dhaka.

The leader of Sri Lanka is a law graduate, and the Maldives president studied civil engineering in the UK. The King of Bhutan went to Oxford, and Nepal’s Maoist prime minister has a diploma in agricultural science. Among Indian leaders, Nehru wrote numerous fabulous books, including a couple on world history, during his imprisonment. Indira Gandhi could give a polished interview in French, English and flawless Hindustani, while her son was a well-regarded commercial pilot who initiated India’s move into the digital era.

China being the elephant in the room is not a fact that Mr Modi readily acknowledges.

Mr Modi is usually projected by his fawning TV anchors as the greatest orator India has ever had. He can be quite compelling, true, but only if a better speaker like Sanjay Singh of Aam Aadmi Party or Lalu Yadav of Bihar are locked up, or if Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra of Mamata Banerjee’s party are arbitrarily suspended from parliament.

Who are the Confucius-hugging leaders that have shunned the professor’s lure? Pakistan is an old suspect. Sri Lanka has had its links with Beijing at least since Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s days. She told me of her affection for Marshal Tito and Zhou Enlai even as she cultivated cordial relations with Nehru and later with his daughter. Nepal always had flourishing ties with China, even as relations with India were rocky. Proximity to China has never not been a concern in New Delhi with Bangladesh. The new neighbours to court the professor’s bête noire are the Maldives and, more worryingly for him, tiny Bhutan, an erstwhile pocket borough.

Like the last elections, when it was the run-in with Pakistan that helped spur Mr Modi to victory, he seems to be searching for a handy stand-off in the neighbourhood.

A hot pursuit warning to Pakistan induced by the election season from Modi’s defence minister is an example of domestic exigencies framing foreign policy. A truer challenge comes from China, which recently renamed 30 cities and villages in India’s northeast to accord with its claim to sovereignty on Arunachal Pradesh. Mr Modi has curiously denied common lore that China recently took away a chunk of Indian territory.

China being the elephant in the room is not a fact that Mr Modi readily acknowledges, and that explains his raising of the issue of a miniscule island that Indira Gandhi conceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.

Kachchathivu is a barren uninhabitable real island comprising 285 acres spread between 1.6 kilometres length and 300 metres width. There has never been a record of India’s claim to the place, and the subject was discussed in 1921 without conclusion. According to the documents published last week by The Hindu, then foreign secretary Kewal Singh briefed former chief minister of Tamil Nadu K. Karunanidhi (father of the current one opposed to Mr Modi) about Mrs Gandhi’s decision to concede the island.

Three reasons were cited. There was no evidence of Indian claim on it. There was oil, which India had secretly assessed the prospects of, in a nearby area which Delhi would get in a settlement. A delay could alert Sri Lanka about the secret. Possibly the most compelling reason given by Mr Singh was the fear of Sri Lanka being driven closer to China if India persisted with a case it had no solid basis to defend.

Colombo was officially phlegmatic. The foreign minister ignored the barb saying it was prompted by India’s domestic politics. Besides, an international pact doesn’t just get wished away.

Did the global professor nevertheless succeed in denting the image of Indira Gandhi, seen by most Indians as a woman of steel? Probably not. But the Sri Lankan media decided to bunk his class anyway.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2024

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