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NEW LOGIC FOR NEW INDIA - There was no condescension in Bush?s offer of friendship

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By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 10.03.06

Even after he fell from grace and spent his last years in disgrace, there was one country where Richard Nixon was always welcome. For all its other angularities, China never forgot its indebtedness to the man who in 1971 began the process of extricating the Middle Kingdom from its post-communist isolation.

It is still too early to say whether or not President George W. Bush will enjoy such a lofty status in India during his retirement years. Yet, when future historians chart the course of Indian foreign policy in this century, they will have to acknowledge Bush?s unique contribution to overturning the entrenched assumptions of the Cold War. It is not merely that the controversial president of the United States of America made a special effort to reach out to India. He was the first world leader of consequence who understood the enormous importance of democratic India in the 21st century world order.

In the natural course, the Indo-US understanding on nuclear energy would not have happened. Both countries had too many non-negotiable and conflicting positions. The March 2 separation agreement, which must now await the US Congress?s ratification to be institutionalized and internationally acceptable, would not have happened if Bush hadn?t taken the political decision to accommodate Indian sensitivities. The US president went out of his way to create a special place for India in the five-member nuclear high table.

Thanks to the Congress?s peculiar dependence on the communists and the Muslim vote, this particular facet of the US president?s two-day visit to India has neither been adequately publicized nor appreciated. A nervous Manmohan Singh government lacks the necessary self-confidence to flaunt India?s global coming-of-age as a political and diplomatic success. When it comes to the US, there is just too much historical baggage that the Congress has to carry. But why blame the Congress alone? The Bharatiya Janata Party, which should have shared the credit for a process that culminated in the July 18 and March 2 agreements, has been excessively circumspect ? although it has raised a few important points for the government to clarify. Consequently, it has been left to the media and corporate India to celebrate a historic step forward.

India , it would seem, is still mentally unprepared to cope with its new global status. Jawaharlal Nehru and the other eminent Nehruvians such as V.K. Krishna Menon may have been passionately interested in international affairs. Unfortunately, that interest was tempered by what can be best described as a monumental chip on the shoulder. Nehru, who was culturally steeped in Anglo-Saxon mores, was over-anxious to show that his heart went out to all the colonized peoples. Likewise, Menon never got out of the propagandist role he assumed as head of the India League in Britain. In attempting to be a ?quality? in world affairs ? Menon?s description ? India ended up as a preachy, sanctimonious bore. Except with the Mountbattens and the liberal set in Hampstead, the British and American establishments tended to be more at ease with Ayub Khan and John Kotelawala than with earnest Indians who shopped in London but pretended that Moscow was paradise. Despite her fierce espousal of national interests, Indira Gandhi carried this arrogant pretence to macabre heights.

It is not merely the leadership that indulged in this inverted snobbery. Feigned indignation directed at the West became a national philosophy and led to disastrous policy choices. Every failure stemming from sloth and incompetence was laid at the door of the colonial legacy. Excellence and entrepreneurship were shunned and mediocrity was celebrated in the name of self-sufficiency and third worldism. The economists and historians were, predictably, the worst culprits. ?It has been well said,? wrote Jagdish Bhagwati, one of the early refugees from India?s socialist conformism, ?that any elementary mistake in economics can be turned into a profound truth by ingenuously making the right assumptions to deduce what you want...India suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premise.?

The problem hasn?t ceased with the onset of market economics and the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Some years ago, V.S. Naipaul faced unwarranted hostility from the champions of political correctness by questioning the relevance of categories like decolonization five decades after the Union Jack was finally lowered. Not that this blunt home truth has forced a re-examination of intellectual assumptions. Last month, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, a body created by the Nehruvians to shower state patronage on its chosen artistes, held a seminar to link Indian literature to other Third World experiences. At a time when Indian writers are seeking Western markets for the Indian idiom and experience, the sheer absurdity of attempting contrived links with oppressed voices in Egypt and Sierra Leone was too apparent.

Like the elusive New World Information Order whose virtues are still proclaimed by the relics of an earlier era, ?official? India hasn?t fully come to terms with the brash, self-confident India of this century. The energy and entrepreneurial dynamism of India which Bush detected quite early on has yet to sink into many critical areas of decision-making.

It is this incomprehension of the New India that is behind the paranoia over interacting with the wider world. The rediscovery of market-oriented economics and deregulation is only 15 years old but even within this brief period, India has experienced one scare after another. The hesitant introduction of rule-based international trade under the aegis of the World Trade Organization was met by the fear of the takeover of the Indian economy by multinational organizations. Cable television triggered fears that the hapless villager in Azamgarh would be exposed to Baywatch and fall prey to an insidious cultural imperialism.

On almost every count these fears have turned out to be misplaced. Indian ingenuity and cultural comfort with itself have led to India dictating the rules of the market. Cricket is a case in point. When socialism prevailed in India, it was the English and the Australians who controlled the game. Today, no major cricketing decision can be taken without factoring Indian interests. In the Seventies, Yorkshireman Fred Trueman taunted Indian cricket as a matter of routine. He never toured India with any MCC side. Today, Geoff Boycott, the other Yorkshire cricketing legend, has to sing for his supper on Indian TV. His accent is regarded by Indians as quaint, just as Peter Sellers?s Indian act drew sniggers in Britain 30 years ago.

The lessons of the past decade are too significant to be brushed aside by insular comrades and uninformed cultural chauvinists. Whenever an economically liberated India has confronted the world, it has always succeeded in turning the balance of power in its own favour. There was not a hint of condescension in Bush?s offer of friendship and neither did he undertake the finger-wagging drill of a big brother ? unlike in Pakistan. He wasn?t showering India with aid and freebies. He was imploring India to assume its rightful role in global capitalism and enrich itself. His offer lay in facilitating the removal of irritants created by an earlier generation. Never mind all the lofty talk of democracy ? which, like the Americans, Indians take for granted ? Bush was speaking the language of a Texan out to cut a mutually beneficial deal.

Nehru, like the protesters who revelled in hateful anger, wouldn?t have comprehended Bush?s logic. That?s because he hated business, entrepreneurship and profit. He epitomized India?s Dark Ages. The country has moved on. And the young generation, unlike the Midnight?s Children, don?t even need to look back in anger at the 50 wasted years. They have nothing to lose but their subordination; they have a world to win.