New Delhi, Sept. 2: Things are not that bad for India, if they are viewed from the good old international perspective.
Barack Obama has balked at an immediate attack of Syria, presumably because the CPM threatened on Sunday to hold more rallies in Calcutta. CPM state boss Biman Bose did warn the White House: “The day America will attack Syria, thousands of Left Front activists and supporters will take to the streets and organise processions in Calcutta.”
Manmohan Singh has pulled back from the brink of a petrol curfew, letting poor Veerappa Moily wallow in an oil slick and reassuring citizens that they still live in a potential world power.
The RBI clarified over the weekend that it was not discussing plans to convert idle gold in temples such as Tirupati into bullion to tide over economic woes.
If all these are not enough to pump national pride, here comes incontrovertible evidence that India has not missed the global bus.
India will literally keep Cuba, the last few holdouts of revolution, moving by sending fleets of buses that the Castro country sorely needs because the original socialist wheels are no longer turning as they used to.
In the process, the theatre of Sino-Indian power games will spread from the icy Himalayas to the streets of Havana.
Delhi has stepped in with the offer of low-floor buses to help revive Cuba’s crumbling urban transport that has in the past few years forced the communist regime to turn to China.
Indian diplomats hope to announce the plan when Vice-President Hamid Ansari visits Cuba and Peru in late October on India’s highest diplomatic visit to either nation since Prime Minister Singh’s 2006 visit to Havana.
While trade and economic opportunities are at the heart of India’s delayed but increasingly aggressive outreach to Latin America, it is gestures like the buses that New Delhi is counting on to catalyse that journey.
“Indian-made buses travelling down the streets of Havana will serve as a visible daily reminder to our friends in Cuba and the region of the ties our nations have shared, and of what a future of collaboration could hold,” a senior official here said.
But the Indian-made buses won’t be alone. They will need to compete with buses Cuba has imported from China.
As the supply of Soviet buses and fuel dried up following the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, Cuba domestically engineered 18-wheeler, hump-backed carriages called “camellos” — camels in Spanish — as its public transport alternative.
The behemoths could each carry 300 people but were uncomfortable, tough to manoeuvre and in short supply — unwittingly becoming symbols of Cuba’s economic warts.
By 2005, Fidel Castro’s government could no longer ignore the public transportation crisis plaguing cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest urban habitation.
Cuba bought 400 buses from Chinese-firm Yutong that year, and signed a deal for several hundreds more in 2008 in a bid to phase out the camellos.
But the Chinese buses haven’t been enough to solve the densely populated island’s public transportation woes. Earlier this year, the Cuban government issued a public appeal to citizens — to switch back to bicycles.
India plans to provide a fleet of 25 buses as a gift, and will offer several hundred more buses for sale to fill that gap, officials said.
But India has more than Yutong’s eight-year head start to overcome.
Both India and China were among the first few nations to diplomatically recognise Cuba after the Castro-led 1959 revolution that overthrew US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
But the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s hit China’s relations with Cuba, which depended on the USSR economically, and in March 1965, Castro publicly hit out at Beijing. Relations between Cuba and China remained tense for the rest of the Cold War.
In contrast, India and Cuba were close friends through the Cold War, epitomised by the arresting image of Castro locking former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a bear hug at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in 1983.
Almost a decade later, in 1992, when Cuba was reeling from food and petrol shortages triggered by the collapse of its ally, the Soviet Union, India came to its rescue, supplying 10,000 tonnes each of rice and wheat — a political initiative taken by the Congress, CPM and the CPI.
Castro called the food aid the “bread of India” — the consignment was enough to manufacture a loaf of bread for each of Cuba’s then 11 million citizens.
But the trade between India and Cuba has fallen over the past two decades — from over $300 million a year in the 1980s to under $30 million in 2011. China has emerged as Cuba’s second-largest trading partner, cashing in on Havana’s desperation for allies after the Soviet collapse.
India is keen to restore its economic relevance for Cuba, and gain more than the toehold it currently enjoys in much of Latin America.
“We need to focus more on Latin America and we are doing that,” external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said on Saturday, speaking to reporters about an expedition two Indians are undertaking from Alaska to the southern tip of Latin America. “But it will take time.”