An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 18 June 2003  

Mohan Guruswamy has focussed on the prime minister's forthcoming visit to China. He opines that in a decade India and China may be one of the three lrgest economies of the world. He has suggested that the PM should shed his conservative approach to diplomacy. There will be no benefit in decrying China for having usurped Indian Territory gifted by Pakistan or on harping on the vexed border question. The time has come to leave the past behind, think big and benefit from the growing trade between the two countries.

More Than Just Beijing Duck!

By Mohan Guruswamy

In early 1953 as President Harry Truman of the USA contemplating the prospects of his successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commented: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it wont be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Truman described his experience as the most powerful man in the world more pithily: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.” I recall a conversation on this in the early 1980’s with Harvard’s Professor Richard Neustadt, who has a justifiable reputation as being the foremost scholar on the US Presidency. Neustadt half seriously suggested that the US is actually run by a bunch of Presidents, CEO’s and Chairmen like those of General Motors, IBM, Ford Foundation, Harvard University, Exxon, House Speaker and the Chairman of Federal Reserve. When I asked “What about the fellow in the White House?” Neustadt laughed and replied “Oh! He is the fellow who talks to Col.Gaddafi!”

The relative powerlessness of the US President on the domestic front has been a continuing theme of study by American scholars. Domestic issues are invariably caught in a gridlock of sectional interests, competitive politics and bureaucratic lethargy. This is not just true of the USA. We see this even in India. Witness how the government flounders on disinvestment or on unraveling the telecom tangle or privatizing Indian Airlines, Air India, Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum or cleaning up the bourses, just to mention a few of the many urgent matters crying for attention. Like presidential power in the USA, prime ministerial power in India is also severely circumscribed by the political process. In any case few domestic issues hold the promise of instant gratification, which is what a politician craves most. Democracy generally is not conducive to statesmanship. To become a statesman a democratically elected leader needs a national crisis, like a war or economic collapse or a major natural calamity. The Second World War turned a drunken outsider like Winston Churchill into a statesman, the Great Depression made Franklin Roosevelt great, just as the Bangladesh War made Indira Gandhi seem to even Atal Behari Vajpayee to be the incarnation of Durga. Which brings me to Vajpayee. Finally.

Atal Behari Vajpayee must be the most traveled Indian Prime Minister now. He has visited exactly a dozen countries in the past twelve months. His visits abroad hardly make any waves in the countries he visits, but the huge press entourage tailing him at the taxpayers expense ensures he gets plenty of exposure in India. When he addressed the US Congress there were hardly a dozen Congressmen and the hall was filled in with pull-ins, which is the case for most third world dignitaries. But here it was a big story. During his last visit to St. Petersburg after he was seated on the same dinner table as George Bush and the host Vladimir Putin, a fawning media as a sign of India’s new international status made much of it. It did not merit even a single line even in ‘The Moscow Times’, even though our imports give the Russian arms industry about half its current turnover. Likewise his visit to Evian to coincide with the G-8 meeting did not elicit much comment or notice from the French media.

The only Indian Prime Ministers who made a splash in overseas media were Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who being much more charismatic individuals often grabbed center stage by the sheer power of their personalities. Like US Presidents, Indian Prime Ministers too turn to foreign affairs when they hit a wall domestically. After the Bofors troubles, Rajiv Gandhi traveled abroad so much, that the media took to referring to him as the NRI Prime Minister. Others do it too. The last Indonesian President, the near blind Abdul Rehman Wahid, popularly called Gus Dur in Indonesia, took to the road in a big way. No country was too small for him and he visited dozens of them, sometimes staying away for more than a month. He soon lost his job.

For all its nationalist hype, the BJP’s leadership too is overly fond of foreign travel. The institutional arrangements within the BJP led government make it appear that, Vajpayee whose fondness for foreign travel is well known, would bring to bear his somewhat truncated attention span on world affairs, while the Sardar would tend to domestic affairs. But apparently this is not so. Even the Sardar has now become peripatetic.

Next week the Prime Minister is off to China. But the China visit need not end up as a media circus for domestic consumption and about how he enjoyed Beijing Duck and all that makes news these days. Vajpayee who has a fondness for Chinese food and frequently has it sent over from the House of Ming at New Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel, might discover that real Chinese food is quite different?

Vajpayee was last in China in February 1979 as Foreign Minister. That trip however had to be cut short due to the Chinese attack on Vietnam on February 17, when 85000 Chinese troops crossed into Vietnam to “teach them a lesson” for signing a Friendship Treaty with the USSR and for invading Cambodia. As it so happened it was the Chinese who learnt a lesson and had to return well bloodied after taking huge causalities. What was galling to them was that the Vietnamese commander, Lt.Gen. Van Tien Dung, did not even bother to pull back his crack divisions in Cambodia and dealt with them with a makeshift force largely made up of militia.

Teaching a lesson is just an extension of policy by other means, and the Chinese are unusually quick to resort to it. Deng Xiaoping, who visited the USA in January 1979, told US President Jimmy Carter about the planned attack and apparently got his blessings to do so. That was during the Cold War when the USA was tilted towards China. Now that we seem tilted towards the USA do we want to serve US interests in “containing” China?

There are plenty of outstanding issues that need to be resolved with China. We need to place the continued Chinese assistance to the Pakistan nuclear weapons and missile program, which is entirely India centric, high on the agenda. And we have to also find a way to deal with the vexing border question. Much of the blame for the uncomfortable position we find ourselves in owing to the resolution passed by Parliament in 1962 is due to the exertions of people like Vajpayee.

Vajpayee, and other habitual Nehru baiters hardly gave him any room to maneuver to a permanent status quo, which was what Zhou Enlai had on offer then. That status quo is pretty much what exists on the ground today. It is not within our power to alter it, nor does it seem to be in China’s power to alter it. For either side to be able to do so will require military and political resources well beyond what is available now. The ends are so meager that no cost justifies them. For India it is the Aksai Chin, a barren, desolate, cold and wind swept desert high up amidst the mountains.

Jawaharlal Nehru said it was so useless that “not a blade of grass grows on it!” To which Vajpayee is said to have remarked “does it mean that the Prime Minister’s head is also useless because nothing grows on it either?”

On 9 November 1962 Vajpayee excoriated Nehru in Parliament saying: “We need not hesitate to accept that we erred in matters of national security and being doing so we have committed a grave crime; by neglecting the protection of our borders we have committed a grave sin, and we today should be prepared to seek repentance.” Having said this Vajpayee pushed for Parliament to resolve to recover every bit of territory “lost” to the Chinese. That resolution still hobbles us. But what is worrisome is that Vajpayee seems to have little change of mind? Jawed Naqvi reports the Indian PM’s conversation with Gen.Pervez Musharaff in August 2001 at Agra in Dawn of 8 August as follows: “Pakistan has given away our territory to China. By what authority was it given away? If we have an agreement over Kashmir we will take it back from China.” Quite clearly the Chinese are not about to give back Aksai Chin and abutting territories, over which our claims are quite tenuous if not dubious. The time has come for Vajpayee to backtrack. Good sense and common sense both dictate that sticking to unreasonable and unsustainable colonial positions doesn’t make for better neighborliness. But given his history and the company he keeps, can he do it?

India and China have been seeing a major upswing in trade relations. Bilateral trade is now poised to cross USD 5 billion very soon. In 2001 it was USD 3.59 billion, leaping by USD 1.29 billion over 2000. The trade gap between the two countries is fast narrowing with Indian exports growing at 54% as opposed to Chinese imports, which are growing at a more modest 14%. If new overland trade routes are opened, this trade will only accelerate further. We have much to gain now that major hydrocarbon deposits are about to fuel a massive economic expansion in the Xinjiang region.

Much water has flowed since 1962. Neither country is the same. In a little over a decade we will be among the top three economies of the world. This is the time to think big and put the past behind us. For that to happen Vajpayee too must leave some mental baggage behind when he goes to Beijing.

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