A failure of imagination

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I grew up on stories of Gama Pahalwan, the iconic champion of an age when wrestling in red langotis still captured the imagination of north India. It seems that apart from ever-increasing quantities of buffalo milk, he ate two dozen raw eggs a day. Like a good Indian, I compromised. Raw eggs seemed the diet of a potential bully, and hard-boiled too wimpish. The solution was clearly half-boiled eggs.

India’s foreign policy is the ultimate half-boiled egg; more Indian than foreign policy. It reflects the national character. We do not want anyone else’s toys on the international playground, but we will not surrender what we possess. We are the status quo champions of the world. We do not covet a neighbour’s territory and have come to terms with what we lost to Pakistan in 1948 and China in 1962. This summer we will give a bit and take nothing much to put a long-disputed Bangladesh border at ease. When we did intervene militarily once to alter the map, in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan, we left so quickly after the fighting that the enemy was astonished and the world puzzled. If America had left Afghanistan as cleanly after its own demolition job in 2001, both America and South Asia would be happier regions today. When we tried to be muscular in Sri Lanka when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, we failed. Offence is clearly offensive to the Indian soul.

The principles of Panchshila, designed around nonintervention, and non-alignment are the essence of India’s view of the world. We believe that it is a trifle gauche, not to say impractical, to go around conquering anyone; or, for that matter, imposing idealism in the neighbourhood or beyond. On the rare occasion when he spoke sense, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi told a non-aligned conference that only India and China among what was then called the “Third World” could afford to be non-aligned; the rest had to choose between America and the Soviet Union. Gaddafi took his chances with his own brand of pseudo-Arab rhetoric, wooing the radical fringe with Islamic-Arab hot air while he set about imposing a brutal dictatorship upon his own people. A self-obsessed fantasy touched every aspect of his behaviour. Not least among his dreams was to turn Libya into a nuclear power.

The giveaway is always in the detail; Gaddafi called his son Moutassim ‘Hannibal’ and doubtless visions of crossing the Alps on elephants to the heart of Western power tinged the core of his imagination. Bizarre was his normalcy. As long as he kept this stupidity domestic, Western superpowers did not much care. The moment he stepped even marginally out of line internationally, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sent in the air force to pound his home and secretariat to smithereens. It is indicative of how long this cruel despot has been around that we are talking of Reagan and Thatcher in his context. In the long tradition of bullies, he crumbled when his nuclear ambition bore no fruit, and quickly applied to join the queue of obedient servitors. Italy and Britain became his protectors, the first out of a false sense of power and the second out of a very real need for cash. Glory and trade always get a higher priority than democracy in the mother of democracies.

All pretence melts in a crisis, and the ruthlessness with which Gaddafi and his hysterical, greedy and vile sons have turned heavy guns upon their own people is evidence of the truth of four decades cloaked by the world’s indifference. The Egyptian army refused to kill its own people. Gaddafi does not have an army; he has killer-mercenaries to protect himself and his megalomaniac sons, Seif, Saadi and Moutassim.

Delhi, ever the status quoist, has been silent until the triumph of change, and then welcomed the new status quo. Libya’s ambassador to Delhi has resigned, but nothing will persuade Delhi to step outside self-constricting caution. Can India, a model for democracy and secularism in the postcolonial world, opt for bland formulations when revolution is sweeping through lost corners of despotism? Egypt has become 18th century France. Its ripples, travelling swiftly through the conscious and subconscious, have reached China, where they are singing hymns to Egypt in order to taunt their own party dictators (‘The awakened lion is roaring, It will smash corruption, bury dictatorships, Mighty Egypt has no room for clowns’). Very few generations are blessed to be witness to epochal transformation. For the first time in history, the Ganges and the Nile could be partners in the liberation of Africa and Asia from their own home-grown tyrants. The Nile is in flood. Why is there a drought of imagination along the Ganges?

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.