Sleeping Tiger, creeping Dragon

| | in Usual Suspects


Since the Indian Parliament is lucky enough to have a quizmaster among its members, it would be instructive if he posed a perplexing question to a Government Minister, preferably one whose answer is likely to be taken seriously.

The question is this: If 19km of Chinese incursion into Indian territory leaves both the Government and society completely unruffled, how much territory does Beijing have to occupy before the country feels well and truly shafted?

Maybe this question need not be confined to representatives of the UPA Government and the presiding deities of the so-called "strategic community" that are so visible in seminars and international airport lounges. This Saturday's Delhi editions of the English language dailies were conspicuous by their perfunctory treatment of this official admission by the Defence Secretary to the parliamentary standing committee on defence. Only one publication chose to place this news on its front page; the rest chose to give greater play to the newest version of a mobile phone produced by Samsung.

Whether the relegation of the border tensions have anything to do with discreet suggestions from (what are quaintly described in media-speak as) 'sources', is a matter of conjecture. But as I have long maintained, the newshounds on the South Block beat have for long adjusted to their new role as stenographers to the Ministry of External Affairs. No wonder readers are compelled to digest a lot of gobble about "perceptional mismatch", "calibrated" overtures and "nuanced" approaches to an opaque and inscrutable dispensation in Beijing. Thank God the TV channels are little less squeamish.

China, to its eternal credit, has very successfully created a mystique around itself. India's China experts-with some honourable exceptions-have, by and large, devoured the piffle that is routinely dished out by its post-Confucian mandarins and, in fact, added their own sprinkling of soya sauce. Those who were exposed to China studies in the Indian Universities in the 1970s may recall the gush-gush endorsements of crazy schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The post-Mao U-turn should, ideally, have left them red-faced by the inclination to be Sinophiles, rather than Sinologists, had struck such deep roots that the shifting sands of China had little impact.

I recall attending a lecture by the notorious fellow-traveller Han Suyin at the London School of Economics sometime in the late-1970s where she held forth on the treachery of the Gang of Four, particularly Mao's widow Jiang Quin. It was all very erudite and convincing until an insolent Briton stood up to remind her that barely a year or so ago she was singing praises of those very people she was now denouncing with gusto.

Actually, for the China-watchers, it is a simple case of access. Their profession demands frequent visits to China and it just doesn't do to get on the wrong side of the present dispensation. And remember, China isn't just another country: it is the most powerful nation of Asia blessed with an unflinching determination to restore its place as the Middle Kingdom. To many of China's policy makers, India is a upstart that must periodically be shown its place. Certainly, Zhou Enlai was miffed by Jawaharlal Nehru's condescension and waited for an opportune moment to deliver a tight slap in 1962.

The irony is that the greater the rebuff, the more India seems to come crawling. Nehru was probably the intellectual originator of the silly 'Chindia' thesis that subsequent fellow travellers such as Jairam Ramesh have taken such pains to propagate. Nehru's anodyne Panchshila was located in a romantic version of post-colonial Asian resurgence. The tragedy was that lesser Nehruvians who were involved in Sino-Indian relations took exceptional care to ensure that ground realities were presented in such a way as to fit a grand theory. Sardar KM Panikkar who served as India's Ambassador to China at a critical juncture may have been an erudite scholar but his total misreading of the fledgling Maoist regime owed a great deal to dissimulation. He presented a picture of China that Nehru wanted to hear. This tradition of tailoring the message to suit the recipient appears to be continuing and, as usual, being packaged within a so-called strategic doctrine.

Some of those entrusted with safeguarding India's national security appear to be more concerned with getting their Mandarin pronunciation right when ordering Shark's Fin soup than in penetrating the political fog that is allowed to engulf the Chinese establishment.

Yes, India cannot afford a military misadventure against a country that has larger capacity and depth. Ideally, it should avoid a second front. But that is no excuse to turn a blind eye to the demographic transformation of Tibet, the cyber terrorism that is periodically unleashed and China's encouragement of Pakistan. Worse, in today's context, there is no logic to replicating Nehru's casual dismissal of the loss of Aksai Chin on the ground that "not a blade of grass" grows there.

There are a lot of little things India can do: lending a shoulder to countries such as Japan, Vietnam and even Singapore who are fearful of China's hegemonism is just one of them. Maybe India has done these things in fits and starts. But all half-hearted initiatives have been overshadowed by the fact that whenever the Chinese dragon breathes fire, we run for cover, tail between legs. In the past week, India has exposed itself well and truly as a paper tiger.

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