Hold the ap­plause – and af­fronts

People's Review - - COMMENTARY -

This hasn't been a good time for In­dia's geo-strate­gists ap­prais­ing their re­cent ebul­lience. Con­sider the lat­est con­flu­ence of events. US Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump turns down an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend In­dia's Repub­lic Day cel­e­bra­tions as the chief guest, as Ja­pan and China step up co­op­er­a­tion on Bei­jing's Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive all but in name, and Sri Lanka's sup­pos­edly In­di­afriendly pres­i­dent sacks the prime min­is­ter to ap­point a known hawk vis-à-vis New Delhi. In the gen­eral tu­mult, it is easy to miss the im­port of the dec­la­ra­tion by our Deputy Prime Min­is­ter, Ish­war Pokharel, in the Chi­nese cap­i­tal that Nepal would never again have to en­dure an In­dian block­ade be­cause of the new con­nec­tiv­i­ties es­tab­lished up north. True, the In­dian news me­dia are cov­er­ing Trump's lat­est de­ci­sion with care­ful caveats. Some­body some­where in Wash­ing­ton DC said some­thing about this to some­one high up in New Delhi. Re­gard­less, the mes­sage is un­am­bigu­ous. You can't hob­nob with the Rus­sians, Chi­nese and Ira­ni­ans at the same time and ex­pect to get away with it – not in Trump's Amer­ica. When strate­gic au­ton­omy keeps look­ing and sound­ing like unadul­ter­ated Nehru­vian sanc­ti­mony, Amer­ica can still act. Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, for his part, seems to have taken a leaf from the In­dian play­book. Sure, Tokyo is locked in an in­ex­orable grand con­test with its tra­di­tional ri­val, but China is also a neigh­bor ge­o­graph­i­cally closer to Ja­pan than In­dia is. If eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion with Bei­jing can help Tokyo man­age its po­lit­i­cal dis­putes, maybe the BRI shouldn't be deemed as dan­ger­ous as, say, the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­per­ity Sphere. More­over, it's not as if Ja­pan is go­ing to drown in Chi­nese loans any­time soon. Of course, Abe didn't say that to In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi dur­ing their meet­ing in Tokyo, a day af­ter Abe re­turned from China. Closer to home, when news re­ports sur­faced a cou­ple of weeks ago that Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena had ac­cused In­dia's ex­ter­nal in­tel­li­gence agency, the Re­search and Anal­y­sis Wing, of plot­ting to as­sas­si­nate him, ev­ery­one ex­pected Sirisena to come out and deny it. His de­nial didn't an­swer the un­der­ly­ing ques­tion. How could such a se­vere ac­cu­sa­tion leak if some­thing omi­nous wasn't afoot in Sri Lanka. As New Delhi re­joiced in proChi­nese Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla Yameen's fail­ure to win re­elec­tion in neigh­bor­ing Mal­dives, there was lit­tle in­di­ca­tion that it would be Sirisena who would go to the ex­tent of pro­vok­ing a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis to put anti-In­dian Mahinda Ra­japaksa in the pre­mier­ship. It's cer­tainly fas­ci­nat­ing to see some prom­i­nent In­dian hy­per­re­al­ists jump for joy ev­ery time a re­cip­i­ent coun­try re­con­sid­ers the an­tic­i­pated ben­e­fits from pro­posed Chi­nese- aided projects, ir­re­spec­tive of whether they are in­deed part of the BRI or not. As much as it might be grat­i­fy­ing, root­ing for the BRI's fail­ure has a flip­side: overt in­sen­si­tiv­ity to devel­op­ment needs of the coun­try con­cerned. Those warn­ing of Chi­nese debt en­trap­ment the loud­est aren't rush­ing in to build projects for free, are they? Does all this war­rant the kind of rhetoric Pokharel de­ployed re­gard­ing In­dia on Chi­nese soil? Rub­bing it in cer­tainly won't help. We all know that Indira and Ra­jiv Gandhi got away with their block­ades be­cause Nepal was not a democ­racy then. New Delhi could sep­a­rate the peo­ple from their govern­ment. Modi's govern­ment failed to ac­knowl­edge how Nepali democ­racy had changed the dy­nam­ics to the point where dam­age con­trol im­pels him to in­vite him­self here at least once a year. Still, the last thing we should be do­ing is un­der­es­ti­mat­ing In­dia's ca­pac­ity for cre­ativ­ity at a time when China's vi­a­bil­ity as a so­lu­tion to our land­locked­ness re­mains vague. That's why sen­ti­ments such as those Pokharel con­veyed in Bei­jing – even as state­ments of fact – should not be part of our lead­ers' pub­lic pro­nounce­ments, es­pe­cially in con­texts where oth­ers are more likely to con­strue them as a de­lib­er­ate and em­phatic dec­la­ra­tion of an in­con­ve­nient real­ity. Leave those to blokes like yours truly.

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