Two unrelated events, separated by several weeks, have reinforced the perception that India's place in the world in the new millennium is full of promise'if only the country and its leadership would handle the challenges with farsightedness and not let opportunities before the nation slip by ' unlike so many times since independence.
The first of these two events was a sweeping victory for India in elections to the UN economic and social council, which brought the country back into reckoning in the world body. The second event took place in the Swedish parliament last week when two Indians, who are outside their government,were honoured with 'alternative Nobel prizes' by Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf.
The second event is a reminder that Indians are yet to receive the recognition from the Nobel committee that is commensurate with their contributions to mankind. How else can one interpret the denial of the Nobel peace prize to Mahatma Gandhi while giving the award to such questionable laureates as South Korea's president, Kim Dae-jung, Aung San Suu Kyi or Lech Walesa' With last week's awards in Stockholm, Asghar Ali Engineer ' who took on the orthodox clergy in his Dawoodi Bohra community ' and social reformer, Swami Agnivesh, joined the ecologist, Vandana Shiva, as the Indian recipients of the alternative Nobels.
It is a tribute to the country's impressive ability to build civil society that Indian organizations which have received the alternative Nobels since they were instituted in 1980 far outnumber individuals. The very first Indian recipient of the award 10 years ago was Ela Bhatt's Self-Employed Women's Association or SEWA, which is so well-known that it does not need any description. The following year, Lokayan, founded by Rajni Kothari for popular networking of local initiatives, was chosen for the award. Two years later, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group was recognized for its efforts to preserve the traditional culture of Ladakh.
A year later, the Chipko Movement was honoured for showing how the forests of the Himalaya can be saved. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra in the service of tribals and Kerala's Sastra Sahitya Parishad, which transformed science into a popular movement in the state, have all been given the award since Jakob von Uexkull, a former member of the European parliament, sold his personal stamp collection to raise one million dollars as the initial endowment for the prizes. Subsequently, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation ' as the organization which awards alternative Nobels is called ' raised enough money from private individuals to make four awards annually with a monetary value adding up to $270,000.
It is a testament to how even the most noble causes can fall victim to institutionalization and the vices of the establishment mentality that when von Uexkull approached the Nobel Foundation to establish two new awards ' one for ecology and another relating to the poor majority of the global population ' he was rebuffed, even though he offered to contribute financially in seeing through his proposal. Disappointed, but not disheartened, he raised money to set up the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, whose awards are handed over in the Swedish parliament every year a day before the Nobel ceremony takes place in Oslo and Stockholm. The Other Economic Summit ' TOES ' which has grown in profile as an alternative to jamborees that extol and promote globalization, was founded by von Uexkull 20 years ago.
For some reason, this year's award of the Nobel peace prize to the Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, has attracted considerable attention in India although Maathai's field of work is not exactly one that appeals to Indians at a mass level. Perhaps her south Indian sounding name has something to do with it' It serves as an eye-opener that the Right Livelihood Award Foundation honoured Maathai with its alternative Nobel exactly two decades before the Oslo Nobel committee thought it fit to confer its peace prize on her.
If India's impressive record in alternative Nobels is a measure of the country's involvement in promoting civil society, its recent success in the Ecosoc election is a measure of renewed global recognition of the country's role in world affairs. Of all the UN's 191 members, only 17 states did not vote for India in the elections to the Ecosoc. Never before in the country's half-a-century plus of existence as a free nation has India received such a sweeping mandate at the UN ' not even in the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, when India was looked up to as a leader of the newly-independent, post-colonial, developing world.
Two things stand out about this election. India came out well ahead of China in the number of votes it received as the first choice of the international community. Secondly, the vote put paid to Pakistan's claim that it was the natural choice to succeed Finland as the president of Ecosoc. Of the four Asian countries elected to Ecosoc, Pakistan received the lowest number of votes in all. The result of this election was fortuitous for India: what remains to be seen is whether New Delhi can turn it to its advantage. Since September 11, 2001, Pakistan has had an increasingly free run on the world stage. Partly, Islamabad has been aided in this by South Block's unwillingness to resort to the kind of strong-arm tactics that it used to employ against its neighbour, lest it should reflect badly on the Indo-Pak peace process. Largely because of such squeamishness on the part of New Delhi, General Pervez Musharraf has been able twist the arm of the Commonwealth into letting his junta back into the institution's counsels. He also managed to barge into ASEAN fora from which the country had been kept out for several years.
Recent diplomatic successes have emboldened Musharraf to act as if Pakistan is equal to India on the world stage, glossing over the huge disparities between the two neighbours. The danger is that if this is allowed to go unchallenged, Pakistan can put serious impediments to India's eventual permanent membership of the UN security council ' even if Islamabad stands no chance of securing a permanent seat at the UN's high table. The Ecosoc victory is a good augury in New Delhi's quest for a permanent seat in the security council. It is also an opportunity to put Pakistan in its place both in the UN system and among the community of nations, if only India would stop pretending that Pakistan is a friend in the making.
Finally, an encouraging trend which will contribute to India's emerging role in the new millennium is the ability and willingness of some states, at long last, to make a mark overseas. The latest such example of an initiative of that kind is West Bengal. Yesterday, the state was honoured at the UN for its 2004 human development report. The UN development programme has been unstinting in its praise for the state's public initiatives in the last three decades, which have raised life expectancy far above the national average and reduced infant mortality rates to the region of the lowest in India. West Bengal's far-reaching land reforms have also come in for praise.
Ultimately, India's place in the world will be judged by these parameters. India's ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons will be worthless if its governments at the Centre and in the states fail in delivering on the social and economic fronts.