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Kowtowing to China

April 8, 2008

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
The Times of India
6 Apr 2008

Ruthlessly ambitious Indian politicians are loath to assume
responsibility for the ministry of external affairs. The job may be
associated with pomp, photo ops, meeting interesting people, travels to
unusual places and a lot of fine dining. However, the political rewards
of persistent jet lag are few. Unless it happens to be linked to the
tiresome western neighbour, the electorate doesn't care a fig for
foreign policy.

As someone who should have reached the top, but didn't and still could,
external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee probably finds his
stewardship of umpteen cabinet committees more rewarding than the coded
nuances of diplomacy. Undaunted, Mukherjee has cleverly broken out of
the South Block straitjacket and transformed foreign policy issue into a
facet of coalition politics.

Mukherjee's achievements are significant. First, he has ensured that
negotiations on the Indo-US nuclear agreement are, in effect, timed out.
In reducing a galloping pace to a crawl, he has endeared himself to a
Left whose tactical preferences could determine whether or not he
continues to be in the Lok Sabha after 2009.

Secondly, Mukherjee has won the respect of a crucial vote bank by the
craftiness with which he resolved their Taslima Nasreen problem. The
controversial writer neither had her visa revoked, nor was she
unceremoniously deported. She left voluntarily, unable to withstand the
mental trauma of being a de facto prisoner of the Indian government.
Mukherjee had, meanwhile, clarified that as a "guest", Taslima had no
civil rights. Staying on in India entailed a permanent gag order.

Mukherjee's awesome reputation as a bloodless executioner has multiplied
the demands on him. Following Communist objections last month, the
minister intervened to cancel an innocuous meeting of the Dalai Lama
with Vice President Hamid Ansari. He added to his 'progressive' brownie
points by lecturing the Tibetan spiritual leader of the dos and don'ts
of being a "guest" in India. Unlike Taslima who was told to avoid
theology, the Tibetan spiritual leader was asked to stick to religion
"but he can't conduct any political activities in this country that lead
to negative impact on Sino-India relations."

The implications of Mukherjee's effrontery are heinous. Beijing can
denounce the "splittist Dalai clique", call the Dalai Lama a "serial
liar" and describe his followers as the "scum of Buddhism" but the
Tibetan leader has no right to respond from Indian soil. Worse, it
implies that the Dharamsala-based Tibetan government-in-exile has no
right to publicise the violation of human rights in that so-called
Autonomous Region of China because that will displease Hu Jintao and
Prakash Karat. The signals are ominous.

As a foreign policy issue, the Tibetan upsurge cannot be wished away by
mindless assertions of that province being an integral part of China.
How China copes with the problem is certain to have a bearing on
Beijing's larger designs on Asia. Equally important, however, is how
India's handling of Chinese pressure reflects on its own status as an
emerging power. Should India kowtow to every threat made by Beijing?
Never mind Tibet being reconciled to China's sovereignty, has India
tacitly accepted China's supremacy in Asia?

In the past few months India has stomached every Chinese insult. It is
in denial over the incursions in Arunachal Pradesh; it has not
confronted the distortions of bilateral trade, particularly China's
insatiable exploitation of our iron ore reserves; and it has been mute
to China's ecological assault of the Himalayan belt. India has become
the prisoner of an unequal relationship.

China is going to be the most important foreign policy challenge for
India in the coming decades. Yet, the markers for the future are being
set with an eye on one constituency in West Bengal. Mukherjee's
ambitions and the national interest are at odds.
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