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A LONG FRIENDSHIP - Why Vietnam made the president of India nostalgic

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By DIPLOMACY: K.P. Nayar
  • Published 24.09.14
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In the two years that he has been in office, there has never been any doubt even for a moment that Pranab Mukherjee is president for all Indians. What his state visit to Vietnam last week revealed was that just as you cannot take the Indian out of Mukherjee, it is even more impossible to take the Bengali out of the president.

The public discourse on Mukherjee in Vietnam has largely been on his protocol engagements, the agreements signed in his presence and whether his style of diplomacy in Hanoi had a hidden Chinese agenda of exploiting territorial disputes in the South China Sea. What was most striking about the visit for me, as I accompanied the president from its start to finish, was the reservoir of goodwill and respect for Bengal in Vietnam, which remains largely untapped. What Mukherjee rekindled as a Bengali president of the country was fading interest in the role of eastern India in the history of Indo-China when countries of that region where fighting anti-colonial wars that, in retrospect, changed the world in our time.

This should not surprise anyone who has recollections or understanding of those times. Most Indians may have forgotten this, but those Vietnamese who recall history still remember that Calcutta was their country’s gateway to the world during the long and difficult years of battles against the Americans. The Soviet Union was a solid backer of Vietnam’s war for national liberation and reunification, and what was Hanoi’s enduring link and connectivity to Moscow then?

Aeroflot’s daily flights — in those days before long-haul, non-stop aircraft — took off from Hanoi to Calcutta and from there to Moscow. Vietnam was surrounded by countries that were begging to act as cat’s paw for the Americans. With small exceptions like Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh’s surroundings were as hostile to him as the Central Intelligence Agency or the Pentagon. So, if the Vietnamese leadership, or for that matter its citizens who travelled in those years of frugality, wanted to go anywhere, the easiest gateway to the world was via Calcutta.

At the famous War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City — still Saigon in day-to-day life there just as Rajiv Chowk is still Connaught Place for most Delhiites — the president was overcome with emotion when he saw a 1966 poster created by the Bengal unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) proclaiming its support for the Vietnamese in their fight against the United States of America. The following day on the flight back to Delhi, when Mukherjee recalled that encounter with Bengal’s fraternal support for a war that shaped foreign policy attitudes for his generation, he did not hide his feelings either.

In these days of intense political acrimony and polarization, as much in Bengal as in the rest of India, it felt good to see a life-long Congressman show respect, understanding and appreciation, for a different political streak although, for the record, the president is non-partisan and does not belong any more to a particular party. On the flight into Hanoi from Delhi, it was clear that Mukherjee had a lot of expectations at the personal level from the visit. He came into the media section of his chartered Air India Boeing 747 and sang a ditty that was on millions of lips in Bengal in the 1960s and early ’70s: “Amar naam tomar naam/ Vietnam, Vietnam [Your name, my name/ Vietnam, Vietnam].” Members of his official entourage who had vivid recollections of those years recalled a similarly popular chorus in Hindi, which translate as, “I may forget my name, you may forget your name, but we will not forget Vietnam.” A catchy, phonetically agreeable slogan at Indian universities during the anti-war demonstrations in those years was “Ho Ho/ Ho Chi Minh/ We will win/ We will win.”

The Vietnamese may well have known it and it could not be ascertained if Mukherjee told them in case they were unaware of it, but there were some persons on board the presidential plane who remembered an example of Mukherjee’s special contribution to Indian support for the Vietnamese in their war efforts.

The All India Congress Committee session in Calcutta in 1982 adopted a resolution in support of Hanoi and the aspirations of the people of South Vietnam for an end to foreign aggression and for reunification of their country. That resolution was drafted mainly by Mukherjee. Although there were many self- appointed veterans on foreign affairs in the AICC hierarchy then, Indira Gandhi wanted Mukherjee to take charge of that resolution, partly because the party was in session in Calcutta and she felt a functionary from Bengal could best reflect what the AICC wanted to convey.

In the annals of engagement between States, it is often such seemingly small but psychologically important factors that tilt the balance in relations. There was speculation on this score when Mukherjee was in Vietnam in May 2011 as finance minister to attend the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank because the Vietnamese leadership made an exception in his case. Mukherjee was the only minister attending the ADB meeting to have been received by the general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party.

The president regretted, though, that on that occasion, in spite of the special treatment he received, “I did not have any detailed interaction with larger sections of the people.” He more than made up for that this time. Yet, a three-day State visit can only scratch the surface of India’s long friendship with Vietnam, of which government-to-government engagement is only a small part.

The presidential entourage, even the accompanying media with Calcutta connections, could not visit Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity house for children and the poor in Hanoi. It would have been a rewarding experience because the struggle by Mother Teresa to open this facility in Vietnam was a hard-fought one: the Communists knew they needed the services of these nuns, but they could not come to terms, as Marxists, with the idea of letting in the Missionaries of Charity. For those who knew her, it was never a surprise that Mother Teresa was not one to give up and, in the case of Vietnam, she visited the country five times between 1991 and 1995 pressing hard with the Hanoi leadership for permission to open a home. Starting with opposition to the nuns, Vietnam’s communist State media now writes, typically, that “Mother Teresa’s was a name full of love, known by all the nations of the world, that her life and morality make her a worthy and well-remembered person”.

At a state banquet in Ho Chi Minh City, at a venue appropriately called the “Reunification Palace,” Mukherjee referred to Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Saigon in the summer of 1929. Tagore received a tumultuous welcome, which the poet interpreted as being in response to the long association between Calcutta and Indo-China. Tagore said to the people of Saigon then that “I bring you the greetings of that radiant India, who lavished her light on this land as well as the message of sympathy and brotherhood of present India who lives separated from you by geographic distance and by the dead solitude of her own darkness.”

Despite all the tumult that Vietnam — Saigon, in particular — has undergone, Tagore continues to be an iconic figure there. A former Indian consul general who served in Saigon after it became Ho Chi Minh City has a story to tell. He was approached on the street by someone with what he claimed to be an autographed portrait of Tagore. The price the man demanded was a thousand US dollars, which was big money by Vietnamese standards. The reason why he wanted to sell was ostensibly that the Communists were taking away antiques and anything else of value in private possession. The diplomat concluded that it was a con job, but the incident points to continuing interest in everything Bengali — and Indian — to the point where touts are on the streets hoping to make a buck out of marketing such associations.