OUT OF COLOMBO
In the last cheerless winter of Dr Manmohan Singh’s political life, freedom is the state of being airborne. His terrestrial life is all about counting the days of redundancy in an India of swelling resentment, and it is the lonelier life of a good man who has consistently refused to defy the worst instincts of politics. The record books require something, and his legacy builders have come out with this historic distinction: “The most travelled prime minister of India.” And they may even take comfort from the fact that home has always been a merciless place for prophets and pioneers. They are unlikely to admit that it is a cruel place for dysfunctional puppets as well. To be fair, all the air miles were not badly spent by the frequent flyer. There was a time when the distinguished doctor was India’s bestselling statement in world capitals. There he was, the wisest old man from the East at the highest tables of global summitry, a statesman of moderation from the land of extreme passions, a much-needed moderniser in one of the world’s most misgoverned democracies. Manmohan played the part to perfection in reassuring understatement, and the nuclear deal with the United States, a logical extension of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s daring repudiation of anti-Americanism, was the moment that brought out the best of him: Diplomatic realism, long-term national interest and political chutzpah. Congress won a General Election in his name. Congress is likely to lose one because of him. For Manmohan Singh today, peace is elsewhere. Anywhere except Colombo.
Manmohan is missing the air miles—and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting ( CHOGM)— for all the wrong reasons. He has suddenly discovered the high morality of international relations and human rights—and the inevitability of Tamil ghosts swarming the Colombo banquet. His excuse for skipping the summit—which is essentially an archival exhi- bition of imperial nostalgia—is the brutal elimination of Tamil guerrillas from the island. The fact is something else, and the political culture to which Manmohan belongs is unlikely to acknowledge that: President Mahinda Rajapaksa has brought to end one of the most sanguineous civil wars of our time. Our Prime Minister heads a government that is unique among the nations challenged by armed insurgency: Stoic India bleeds and displays mindboggling confusion in the face of threat from the so-called Maoists who do not accept its very existence. The Colombo cancellation becomes a bit of black humour considering that the morality lesson that denies Manmohan another statesman-holiday comes from the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu.
Manmohan’s absence from Colombo should have been for a better reason: CHOGM doesn’t matter. Apologists for this irrelevant grouping— united by the loyalty to the Queen of England— may tell you that, together, these fifty-three countries have a population of two billion. The size is enormous; influence is nil. Any global alliance is only as good as its commitment to shared interests and CHOGM is more symbolism than substance. India, in spite of all the talk about the superpower-in-making, is, in its attitude and ideas, a “Third World”, which is increasingly a mindset. India is a natural member of organisations which are out of date—and out of history. CHOGM is one of them. Zimbabwe may not be there but CHOGM is still home to regimes that give a damn to human rights. NAM is the other contaminated junk in geopolitics, and it is largely sustained by anti-colonial freedom fighters-turned-genocidal giants. India, still reluctant to deviate from Nehruvian Third Worldism, is a patron saint of such ahistorical anomalies, such wildlife sanctuaries untouched by the pretence of human rights. The morality that kept Manmohan Singh away from Colombo is as untenable as the man himself.