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INDIA’S ANCIENT OTHER SELF
- India and the ASEAN countries could be natural partners for trade

When P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government see- med to be dragging its feet on economic reform, a Chinese Singaporean asked me in bewilderment if Indians didn’t want to be rich. Assuring him that we hankered for wealth as much as anyone else but that we also craved the piety of virtuous penury, I repeated Sarojini Naidu’s gibe about the cost of keeping Gandhi in poverty to illustrate the Indian paradox.

The contradiction is again apparent in ambivalence over the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement between India and Singapore that was discussed recently for the eighth time. Obviously, there can be no conclusion until after the hurly-burly of elections. Equally obviously, Indians must be as clear as Singaporeans as to what they expect from a path-breaking treaty that is far more than the conventional free trade agreement.

One objective should be to regain the Singapore market which India once supplied with virtually everything. Manhole covers to management training, ceiling fans to textbooks, iron safes to betel leaves and lorries were Indian. The second aim is even more important. Shining or not now, there certainly was a time when India’s light radiated out to southeast Asia. The CECA with Singapore could be the means of regaining the once and future swarnabhumi of what historians call Farther India.

Biju Patnaik once told me of an Orissa festival that harks back to that golden age. I was in his jeep as he drove along the road to Paradip, sitting in a pilot’s cockpit seat behind the wheel. He felt more comfortable in it. At full moon, Patnaik said, women set afloat oil lamps in hollowed plantain trunks to symbolize boats. As the lights twinkle on the waters of the Bay of Bengal, they sing to their menfolk to bring back golden ornaments for their hair from swarnadwipa, the golden isle, beyond the seas. It is a measure of India’s diminution that no one remembers today how Jawaharlal Nehru, with his heightened feeling of Asian kinship, sent the flamboyant young Patnaik to war-torn Indonesia. Piloting his own plane, Patnaik snatched Mohammed Hatta from the jaws of the Dutch and flew him to safety in New Delhi.

India should enjoy every advantage in the region. Drawing ostracized and isolated China into the fold, Nehru rekindled a sense of continental pride in 1947 with the first Asian Relations Conference. He defied intense American lobbying to mobilize opinion against the reimposition of the Netherlands’ stranglehold on Indonesia. Neh- ru’s daughter stood by Vietnam and Cambodia when other non-communist leaders found it expedient to look away. Sumatra, seat of the Sri Vijaya empire for six centuries, was literally swarnadwipa. Bali is Farther India’s last fragment; Singapore, a reminder of Britain’s far-flung Indian empire. Myanmar, too, was a British Indian province. Somewhere along the way India lost — perhaps never had — the knack of converting historical privilege into political bonding and economic gain.

Now, Indian products are at a discount because enriched Singapore can buy the best from the West. Hospitals and doctors freely use the inexpensive life-saving Indian medicines that Western pharmaceutical ma- nufacturers tried relentlessly to suppress. But you don’t ever see an Indian brand on a Singapore shop shelf because of consumer resistance to image and packaging. So firmly has southeast Asia turned its back on its past that Thailand’s Princess Sirindhorn, mi- stress of Pali and Sanskrit, titled Maha Chakri by her kingly father, warn- ed me against speaking of Indian influence. “Indic” is the neutral approved term. “They probably even think the Buddha was born in Thailand!” she laughed.

Given this pre- dilection, it is not surprising that India’s gods, the deities of southeast Asia’s enlightenment, should gather dust in oblivion. But, significantly, not Siddhidata, bestower of success. Vishnu is a museum piece, but Ganesa, a vibrant presence whose benediction is sought by traders, travellers, artists and statesmen. As lord of business and diplomacy, he squats comfortably on a high pedestal outside Bangkok’s World Trade Centre, where people offer flowers, incense and a reverential sawasdeenamaskar. A gilt Ganesa presides over the bustling charivari of lucrative tourism in the lobby of the Rama Hotel. Another commands the Isetan department store.

Even Muslim Indonesia reveres him. The locals try to shrug away the elephantine images stacked high in wayside shops as only garden decoration. But European scholars call him the “Indonesian god of wisdom”. Bandung boasts a Jalan Ganesa, and his image adorns 20,000 rupiah notes. Tellingly, someone had placed flowers at the feet of the lotus-enthroned Ganesa commanding the western gate of Prambanam, the vast temple-complex near Yogyakarta that the second Mataram dynasty built around AD 850. Worship of success cuts across religious frontiers. Farther India has banished Vignakarta, creator of obstacles. It worships Vighnaharta, remover of obstacles.

Where are the modern coefficients of these ancient lin- kages' There were none before 1991. India has become a full-dialogue partner of the Association of South East Asian Nations since then; joined the ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia’s embryonic crisis resolution mechanism; and participated in a series of annual summit conferences with ASEAN. A framework agreement for a free trade agreement with Thailand, another framework agreement on comprehensive economic cooperation with ASEAN as a whole, and the CECA negotiations led to the first ASEAN-India forum, organized in Singapore two months ago by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Supported by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce, it highlighted how the CECA can be pursued in tandem with an aggressive Look East policy.

The thrust is simple enough — to increase trade, generate investment, pool resources in science and technology, set up joint ventures, and cooperate in a range of services to the benefit of a billion Indians as well as ASEAN’s 500 million people. The forum identified healthcare, food and energy, infrastructure, outsourcing, information and communication, tourism, financial and education services and food-processing as areas of interest. A Singapore minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, himself a child of India’s diaspora, trotted out India’s growth figures as challenge and opportunity: “India, China and ASEAN are natural partners for trade and commerce.”

India can use the economic space; ASEAN needs the expertise and market. But cooperation must be qualitatively different with each of ASEAN’s ten members, many of them maritime states of strategic importance. Disparate political systems, different tariffs, the absence of common standards for excise, customs and rules of origin, national preferences, protectionism, trafficking in drugs and weapons, and varying levels of bureaucratic integrity and efficiency, impede uniformity. As my wife and I were leaving Phnom Penh airport last year, the immigration officer demanded five dollars for clearing our passports. That would be unthinkable in what might be called ASEAN’s first division — Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Sub-regional cooperation can foster ties with these key players. Just as CECA will link India with Singapore, other initiatives like the Mekong-Ganga project and the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation will strengthen ties with Thailand. Thaksin Shinawatra’s critics accuse him of pursuing personal interests in India. But adapting the old adage about what is good for General Motors being good for America, what is good for Shin Satellites (controlled by the prime minister’s clan, whose wealth is assessed at $1.2 billion) may also be good for Thailand.

What is Singapore’s role in this synergy' Balakrishnan quoted the CII president, Anand Mahindra, as saying that the island state could be a working model for Indians. “In his words, an Indian businessman coming to Singapore must be able to say, ‘I have seen the future, and it works.’” It is a future that returns to the past. Singapore, where Indians feel more comfortable than in, say, Laos, could be modern India’s route to the lands where Ganesa still rides. The ship of liberalization needs a pilot as it ventures out into wider seas of adventure and achievement on a voyage of rediscovery of India’s ancient other self.

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