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Mainstream, VOL LII No 50, December 6, 2014

Road to Dhaka ; Bright or Ugly?

Sunday 7 December 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The PM has returned after attending the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. Against this backdrop it is worthwhile to recall the past. In this context we reproduce two pieces by N.C.—both ‘Editor’s Notebook’ published in this journal in 1985: one before the First SAARC Summit in Dhaka in December of the year and the other after that Summit.

Road to Dhaka

The journey to the Geneva Summit (November 19-21, 1985) was arduous, and the trek itself was hazardous. But both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev have acknowledged that the climb was worth the strain, if for nothing else but to have enabled them both to earn the encomium of the entire humankind as it has at least stalled the immediacy of nuclear annihilation.

For President Reagan it must have been a particularly gruelling venture since he had to leave behind a lot of his America First baggage. It was indeed remarkable that from his “empire of evil” rhetoric against Moscow, he could sweat his way up to not only shaking hands with the Kremlin’s chief executive but to work out a personal rapport with him to the point of testifying to Gorbachev’s sincerity of purpose.

There is something curious in the present balance of world forces that the most vociferous of the anti-Communist hectors among the US Presidents have had to come to terms with their Soviet counterparts—Nixon in 1972 earning the distinction of being the first to go all the way to Moscow for the SALT talks, and now, thirteen years later, Reagan in Geneva having to state jointly with Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. All the tub-thumping over Moscow’s mischief about Human Rights violations and regional conflicts—on which the US President had vehemently been haranguing only a few weeks before at the fortieth anniversary celebrations of the United Nations—was quietly cast aside: the Geneva Joint Statement only agreed on “the importance of resolving matters concerning individual citizens in the spirit of cooperation” and to continue “the already held exchanges of views on regional issues”. Above all, President Reagan had to overcome the handicap of having to present himself at Geneva as a chief without a loyal team, thanks to the deliberate leak of Weinburger’s provocative letter meant to sabotage the Summit.

For Mikhail Gorbachev, the Geneva Summit has no doubt been a hard-won achievement. He went there with few illusions and perhaps returned from there with none. At the same time, he could through an extraordinary performance of firmness-cum-persuasion, succeed to a large measure in making President Reagan realise that there could possibly be no alternative to nuclear holocaust except through detente. No doubt the Soviet leader could not bring the American President round to abandoning his so-called Star Wars game, but he has been able to present to the world from the Summit platform in Geneva the suicidal scenario opened up by the Pentagon’s dangerous adventurism on this score. More than anything else, Moscow can justifiably claim that Gorbachev’s diplomacy has pulled the world back from the catastrophe to which the American brinkmanship was forcing it into. In the weeks and months to come, the Soveit side would have to encounter many an obstacle to the realisation of the prospects held out by the Geneva Summit; for, it knows more than anybody else the strength of the thermonuclear hawks in Washington buttressed up by the tribal ideology of America uber alles. Not yet a breakthrough but certainly the opening of the door that may lead to detente.

The road to Geneva passed through many a rugged landscape. It was certainly not roses all the way nor was it easy to surmount the intractable problems thrown up during the progress to Geneva.

This is necessary to underline as one looks forward to another type of Summit nearer home at Dhaka to be held in another week. If the message from Geneva has been one of relief for the entire humanity as the danger of nuclear death is staved off at least for the time being, the meeting at Dhaka promises to attract world attention as it will be confronted with difficult problems concerning the life and living of millions of have-nots in one of the most populous regions in the Third World.

Broadly two options seem to be open before the leaders of the seven South Asian countries when they meet at Dhaka on December 7. First, while institutionalising regional cooperation by formally establishing the South Asian Association, they may decide upon a modest programme of mutual concern, a sort of extension of the present level of SARC activities. Second, they may aspire to a more ambitious role in both regional and world affairs by trying for some sort of economic complementarity, if not integration, along the lines of the European Common Market.

While the first course will fetch results that may have little glamour but will be enduring, the second one will demand of the South Asian countries themselves, a more cohesive outlook and approach than is evident today. But any identity of economic interests in the present-day world implies a certain level of political concomitance which is not easy to achieve in the regional context. Here indeed lies the difference between the Geneva Summit which demands detente of the two great powers armed with weapons that can destroy the entire world, and the Dhaka Summit which is meant, by and large, to work out a design for neighbourly amity and for uplifting the level of livelihood of the millions whose deprivation is the legacy of a colonial past.

More precisely, such a responsibility enjoins upon these countries to strive for economic independence in the real sense, and this can hardly be ensured without clear political perspective of not only adhering to independent existence but strengthening such independence, and this, in turn, demands self-reliance in the matter of security, and not being entangled in any big-power strategic perception. There are economic pundits in these countries offering prescriptions that may land one into the debt trap of the transnational corporations. Significantly such pundits thrive under regimes which prefer close military tie-ups with outside powers.

A case in point is India-Pakistan relations which are bedevilled not because of any original sin of mutual animosity as some of the well-meaning commentators want us to believe. The true story of the British plan of partition is yet to be researched and revealed, but Olaf Caroe has amply made it clear that the grip over the north-western arena of the subcontinent had to be maintained for the West’s global strategy not only against the Soviet Union, but also against intractable elements in South Asia refusing to line up behind the West. Here lay the genesis of the Pentagon doctrine of not only stockpiling sophisticated arms in Pakistan but also to prop up military regimes which are easier to manage. It is this strategic-ideological discrepancy betweeen India’s independent line in world affairs and Pakistan’s entanglement with Washington which is basic to any understanding of the protracted Indo-Pak tension spread over nearly four decades.

When therefore the South Asian leaders would be talking against outside interference in the region, they have to honestly face up to such realities, however uncomfortable they may be in the polite company at Dhaka. While President Jayawardene’s difficulty with his Tamil compa-triots is essentially an internal matter for the Sri Lanka Government, the import of Israeli experts or any deal, covert or overt, with US authorities over Trincomalee becomes a matter of concern for the entire region. The Dhaka Summit therefore presents formidable challenges which can hardly be wished away by an overdose of euphoria at any level.

At the same time, it provides a unique platform for the reassertion of independence by the South Asian countries—both economic and strategic independence. How much this is threatened by the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan may be a subject of divergent assessment; but there is little room for denying that the massive build-up of the Seventh Fleet—not to speak of the RDF and Central Command—in the Indian Ocean is a matter of common concern, a concern which is heightened by Washington’s persistent refusal to agree to the calling of the UN Conference for declaring the Indian Ocean a zone of peace.

For Rajiv Gandhi personally, Dhaka will provide the opportunity not only of renewing his already established personal rapport with the leaders of South Asian countries but to expound before them the perspective of the Nonaligned Movement with its firm commitment to nuclear disarmament, worldwide campaign against apartheid and for a Southern initiative for the reordering of the international economic structure. And as he surveys the scene at Dhaka, he has also to hold out a truly continental vista of an Asia emancipated from colonial bondage, building an enduring edifice of peace and well-being—a vision which inspired Jawaharlal Nehru to call the Asian Relations Conference thirtyeight years ago. This is the message which must accompany Rajiv Gandhi during his tour of Asian countries from Oman at one end to Vietnam and Japan at the other.

In the world of the Twentyfirst Century endowed with the prospect of harnessing the renewable sources of energy which the Third World has in abundance, the call for Asian Resurgence is neither a platitude nor unrealistic. Not just a piece of picturesque peroration but a resolution for determined endeavour that had once inspired our forefathers in the battle for freedom against Western dominance. 

(Mainstream, November 30, 1985)

Bright or Ugly?

With his return from the Dhaka Summit, Rajiv Gandhi’s budget for foreign tours for the current year is exhausted, the most impressive that any Prime Minister of India has undertaken in the first year in office. The time for drawing up the balance-sheet for the year has not come, since the overpublicised stop over in New Delhi by General Zia on December 16 is yet to be assessed.

The Dhaka Summit, which institutionalised South Asian Regional Cooperation by setting up its Association, is a moidestly positive acheivement, particularly when evaluated against the back-ground of differences, problems, difficulties and tensions that prevail in the region. How far it will move in taking a definite shape, whether any of the existing models of regional cooperation are valid for South Asia, and finally which way the SAARC will finally go in the complex international scenario—these and many other questions are in the realm of speculation, and no careful observer will venture a firm guess. At the same time, active regional cooperation may certainly help to remove the cobwebs of misunderstanding and iron out differences accentuated by external vested interests.

The big question-mark that faces the newly-born SAARC is the ultimate outcome of the intensified interaction among South Asian neighbours that it promises to bring about: will this generate in each of its members the will to stand up and assert independence from powerful vested interests, political and economic, that in the name of strategic consensus, are trying to spread their tentacles all around the globe? Or, will that promised interaction within the SAARC undermine the independence of its member, states and ensnare them in a collective network of eocnomic dependence to the IMF-World Bank overlordship? In plain words, every Indian would like to know whether the SAARC will enhance and reinforce the country’s economic independence or bring it under the tutelage of powerful economic cartels and their transnational tentacles.

This is no longer a theoretical issue for even a country like India, which can in all humility claim that its line of development in the four decades since the end of colonial subjugation, has given it a measure of strenth and stamina which other South Asian countries happen to lack. Incidentally, this distinctive Indian position was relfected in the SARC Summit in a different form. At Dhaka, Rajiv Gandhi was not only the head of government of the largest country in the region but the elected head of a regime which is more advanced in democracy than all the others.

However, even with such a record our country is not immune from the depredations of powerful Western capital. The leaders of the SAARC would find it rewarding to make a case study of the Bhopal poison-gas tragedy, the most horrendous in the annals of development since the Industrial Revolution. It has evoked a sence of horror throughout the world but that has hardly touched the venality of the bosses of the Union Carbide whose negligence led to the crime that has already killed over two thousand innocent people and has afflicted with deadly disease many thousands more. By any civilised standards, this guilty company’s assets in this country should have been confiscated and the magnitude of its guilt made the basis of a worldwide movement of educating millions about the hideous face of the transnatioal corporations.

While there has been spontaneous resentment at the Bhopal tragedy among many segments of public opinion, both at home and abroad, one is amazed at the manner in which the guilty party, the Union Carbide, has been allowed to hold back for over a year the legitimate compensation that the victims of its misdeed are entitled to. The Prime Minister has told the press that the matter is being handled by the Law Ministry; and his Law Minister has of course dutifully made a trip to the United States. There are however good grounds for being worried at the manner in which the matter is being mishandled so much so that one should not be blamed for suspecting the record of probity of the concerned authorities entrusted with the task of dealing with the United Carbide. It is time the Prime Minister himself looked into the goings-on in this connection within his government which, by all accounts, amount to a veritable scandal. If a transnational corporation can virtually take for a ride the Ministers and officers of a government of the stature and reputation such as those of this country, one can easily imagine what could have happened in the countries in our neighbourhood, some of which would certainly find it difficult to stand up to the pulls and pressures, inducements and blackmail that come in the wake of the operation of giant transnational corporatios.

The mishandling of the Bhopal tragedy, bordering on the scandalous, is indeed a warning for our country. The objective of Rajiv Gandhi’s programme of modernising the economic structure taking the country into the era of Technological Revolution, is certainly to be welcomed as it fits in with the pattern of an unfolding historical process. At the same time, he as the chief executive has to guard against the danger of the transnational corporations making menacing inroads into our economy and even into the our poliy. In the name of bringing       in high technology, there is always the danger      of such powerful corporations subverting whatever economic independence we have been able to achieve and sustain in the last four decades. Technology by all means we must have, but in a manner and by a strategy that would offer no quarter to powerful foreign vested interests whose record of subversion and domination is an open secret all over the world.

Such misgivings need not be dismissed as baseless. Those who are today entrusted with the formulation and implementation of economic policies, have built up an edifice which can hardly generate the confidence of the public in their capacity and competence to guard and reinforce our economic independence. It is not that the Finance Minister has to be made a target, for it is by now widely known that a particular lobby in the world of big business which specialises in blatantly irregular practices, is gunning for him. But the back-room operators who have been silently manipulating our economic decision-making, are not the ones that can fight for the defence of our economy from the rapacity of international big business. Those who have chosen to remain wedded to the IMF-World Bank outlook, can they in all honesty fortify this country from being mortgaged out? The exercise that has now been going on in the Finance Ministry for the preparation of the next year’s Budget has already brought out the precarious foreign exchange balance—thanks to the reckless squandering of hard currency on inessential imports in the name of so-called liberalisation—and also the virtual fiasco in internal resource raising. There could be no better commentary on the competence or otherwise of these pundits in the back-room to defend our true national interests.

The time is fast approaching for Rajiv Gandhi to decide whether so much at stake should be allowed to be mismanaged by so few imperilling the vital interests of so many that constitute this nation of over seven hundred million. No doubt a chilling thought, but like the New Delhi winter, it can lead on to bright sunshine with a clearer perspective.

(Mainstream, December 14, 1985)