THERE is this memorable cameo character of a hypochondriac in a Bombay movie from the 1970s who comes up with a curious disorder he describes as shifting pain — an instantly coined term that doesn’t deter the doctor from prescribing a harmless and fake tablet, which cured the patient.
A handful of political analysts in India betray similar symptoms of hypochondria in their unending obsession with the China bogey, except that there is no harmless tablet for the cure. They self-medicate themselves with nuclear missiles and forward bases.
China is encircling India, goes the media chorus. It wouldn’t occur to any among the pundits to admit that China’s encirclement of India — on for decades, and in tandem with the US for many years — could only become possible because India has failed to win the trust of its own neighbours, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan among them, something the Chinese handle with obvious finesse.
In Sri Lanka, for example, India lacked the diplomatic wherewithal to address Sinhalese concerns and Tamil fears equitably and played both sides of the street.
Disaster struck when a Sinhalese chauvinist naval cadet butted Rajiv Gandhi on the neck during a guard of honour and a Tamil zealot later killed him. Are we to blame the Chinese for the murder of the man who worked as few Indian leaders have done for peace with China?
So, should we endorse China’s bonhomie with Colombo as a role model? Not before censuring Beijing’s arms supplies to Colombo for the mass murder of Tamils though that still leaves India without an explanation for its own faltering ties with Sri Lanka.
Again, a landlocked Nepal suffered a crippling economic blockade imposed by India. Was there a valid reason for the former Hindu kingdom not to look to China for help? Why is Bangladesh close to Beijing when Delhi claims to have helped its creation? Should the Chinese be given credit for India’s failure to strike up a sure-footed relationship with Dhaka?
Ties with Pakistan is a more complex story but there is nothing to suggest that the Gujral doctrine which put premium on improved ties with Pakistan and other neighbours could not be replicated by his successors.
Indian TV broadcasts, like veritable Mexican waves, parroted unremittingly how Chinese troops slyly violated a sacred pact on peace and tranquillity on the borders to intrude into Indian territories.
That’s only a glimpse of the whipped-up paranoia, but what about its consequences? Sample the fact that India’s army chief had to rush to television to quell the Chinese intrusion story as baseless and probably planted.
To be fair to the Congress party, the BJP-led government whipped up much of the recent anti-China virulence to justify its obsession with the bomb. Prime minister Vajpayee’s 1998 Pokhran tests found his defence minister naming China as India’s enemy number one. No explanation was offered or sought for the somersault after 1988 when a Rajiv Gandhi-Deng Xiaoping handshake restored India-China ties to an even keel after decades of aloofness.
I remember joining Indian revelry in Beijing in 1993 as foreign secretary Jyotindra Nath Dixit spelled out details of a landmark pact for peaceful borders agreed on by premiers Li Peng and Narasimha Rao. A Pakistan-sponsored upsurge starting in 1990 in Kashmir might have spurred India to secure the Himalayan frontiers with China around then but the desire for Sino-Indian rapprochement 16 years after 1962 appeared sincere.
Yet, by 1998, we were watching the embarrassing spectacle of defence minister George Fernandes, who had in fact won his political spurs by kicking out Coca Cola from India in 1977, kowtowing before the country that bottled the drink. Vajpayee himself secretly shot off an obsequious letter to president Clinton, blaming his nuclear tests on the threat from China. The morally upright nation, whose security concerns were cited as having set off the nuclear tests, was sheepishly explaining the exercise of its sovereign right to keep nuclear weapons (even if it was a suicidal right) to the head of a foreign power.
For reasons not entirely transparent, the Americans now see India as the ‘lynchpin’ in their Asia strategy. True to recent tradition, leading Indians are looking forward to being thus loved by the most powerful nation on earth, forgetting the kiss of death it once brought to Pakistan.
A former Indian diplomat went to the extent last week of showering praises on a former army chief, better known as the author of Siachen’s militarisation, for defying Indian leadership and “setting up an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation” with the Chinese troops. (So much for thumbing one’s nose at Pakistan when Musharraf apparently defied Nawaz Sharif to invade Kargil.)
According to the Indian Express report citing the former foreign secretary, Gen Sundarji’s much-admired China gambit “paid off quite well … The Chinese were surprised by this well-orchestrated response from Indian troops which subsequently led to a change in Beijing’s attitude towards New Delhi,” the report claimed.
Had the former diplomat not been involved with the India-US civil nuclear deal, we might have taken his views as non-partisan, and possibly objective. I wonder if there is a Chinese version of the Sundarji episode. There certainly was a significant Chinese version for another Indian accusation on Tuesday — the media’s claim that Chinese troops were lodged inside Pakistani Kashmir.
“As minister of national defence of China, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify to you once again: the PLA has never deployed a single soldier in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir,” Chinese Defence Minister Gen Liang asserted unambiguously in an interview to The Hindu in Delhi.
This is not to suggest that everything the Chinese say must necessarily be trusted. China survived for many of its early years by playing the Soviets against the Americans and goodness knows by what diplomatic subterfuge it dealt with others. The question merely is: why trust anyone else, including the Americans, more than India should the Chinese.
Why is it that puerile slogans have marked this extremely important relationship? It’s either ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ or it’s a nuclear war game. The contrary behaviour could be a symptom of acute political schizophrenia or of diplomatic hypochondria. Whatever the prognosis, we need an urgent cure. The alternative is unthinkable.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.