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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

The Lost World: Oscillating between Hope and Despair

Saturday 24 October 2015



by L.K. Sharma

Building A Just World: Essays in Honour of Muchkund Dubey edited by Manoranjan Mohanty, Vinod C. Khanna and Biswajit Dhar with a Foreword by Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad; 2015; pages: 406.


This book is in honour of a Foreign Secretary who retired in 1991. Muchkund Dubey is remembered as an official who energised India’s economic diplomacy and fought the battles for development and disarmament that were considered crucial both by the developed North and developing South.

Some essays recall the nature of India’s engagement with the world in the recent past that now appears to be a very distant past. The nature of engagement altered due to the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new India. It is changing further due to the present government’s policy-orientation. During his long career as a diplomat, Dubey saw governments of different hues come and go but none of them launched a political assault on the Nehruvian India of which he is a prime product.

Today the old Gods of India are being supplanted by the newly manufactured ones. Every undesirable development becomes ‘the new normal’. The sea of change has menacing waves lashing against every institution, every school of thought and every dissenting individual. The official ideology is being promoted through threats and sops. Building A Just World contains material that is no longer in vogue. In the earlier era, the President of the Indian Republic, Pranab Mukherjee, was an active political player and during his ministerial stints, he dealt with the issues of trade and development and disarmament. Thus the President represents continuity in the face of disruptive change. Naturally, he agreed to formally receive in the Rashtrapati Bhavan the first copy of the book about the concerns that dominated the yesteryears.

A recollection of the causes that seem lost could not be an occasion for celebration. It was not a wake but the function reminded the audience of the direction in which India is going. In that chandeliered hall, one recalled the Bengali film Bhooter Bhobishyot (The Future of the Past) featuring the resident ghosts of a grand Calcutta mansion who gather to discuss their future as a developer plans to demolish the building. Muchkund Dubey could lament like the Urdu poet who asks the Creator as to why he did not change him while changing his world! Meri duniya kyon badaldi, mujhko kyon badla nahin!

Any book about Dubey and his contem-poraries in the Indian Foreign Service is a timely reminder of India’s idea of the world that was based on the idea of India. The legacy of Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore inspired India’s foreign policy establishment that imbibed the spirit of universalism. India always thought about what the world should be like. Gandhi said he would not like to live in a world that is not one world. Today rampaging mobs trample on the ideal of One India. The foreign policy cannot be delinked from the domestic politics. Its practitioners are mindful of the “domestic roots of international policies”. Does a pragmatic GDP-obsessed emerging superpower set on the capitalist path mind inequity and an unjust world?

The book would have been enriched with some more material on the changing nature of India’s engagement with the world. Some contributors suggest alternative strategies which remind one of the folk saying “Budhia such kahti hai, per sunta hai kon!” (The old woman is telling the truth but who would listens to her.)

The Rashtrapati Bhavan function was attended mostly by academics and former diplomats. Dubey recalled how Gandhi and Nehru inspired him to join the Indian Foreign Service. He highlighted the vision that marked the diplomats’ endeavour during India’s formative decades. The comments were peppered with words and phrases found in abundance in Building A Just World. These included non-alignment, South-South Coope-ration, multilateralism, Afro-Asian Solidarity, nuclear disarmament, the New Economic Order and the New Information Order.

These are yesterday’s words and phrases. The old frame of reference is lost. Today’s words are realism, democracy through military intervention, regime change, surgical strikes, financial reforms and globalisation. The WTO is more effective in reshaping the world than the United Nations. The Third World lies fractured.

The volume covers a wide range of topics clubbed under the headings: Just World Order, Peace Security and Climate Change and Social Sector. The contributors are from all over the world. There is a human interest interview with Dubey. How this Bihari Brahmin, who as a child memorised the Gita, barged into the elite Foreign Service from a non-elite background. Intellec-tually rich young candidates rooted in Indian cultural traditions were rarely admitted to the club which largely consisted of the products of a prestigious Delhi college. They came from the homes having polished period furniture, vintage wine bottles and children with perfect table manners.

Dubey adjusted himself to the sophisticated environment suffused with alcohol and protocol and went on to win admiration for his drafts-manship and diplomatic skills in international forums. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former UN Secretary General, describes Dubey as one of the most perceptive and articulate spokesmen and negotiators of the developing countries struggling for peace and development cooperation. He admires Dubey’s contributions at the UN and other domains of multilateral cooperation.

This reporter saw at these forums Muchkund Dubey fighting with vigour the unequal North-South battles related to trade and development. The experts of the North would come with their data-loaded laptops that gave them precise information about the financial consequences of the deletion or insertion of a word in the draft agreements. The Third World diplomats went by their intuition.

Some experts in the multilateral organisations were more than a match for the negotiators from the developed countries. These battles for modifying or withdrawing drafts and counter-drafts were held in an electrifying atmosphere! To get a feel of the ethos in which Dubey operated one has to read a few words by Rubens Ricupero, former Secretary-General of UNCTAD. He says the multilateral economic organisations failed to seek forgiveness for the financial crisis resulting from the terrible advice they gave countries. The UNCTAD people were not morally superior or intellectually brighter than others but what they had was “an inter-national public service ethics, a commitment to critical and independent thought, a desire to imitate the lessons left by giants such as Gunnar Myrdal and Raul Prebisch”.

In his Foreword, Boutros-Ghali makes the UN during its hey day appear as an institution of a very distant past. The decline of the UN began a long time ago but the Boutros-Ghalis and Dubeys of the world kept fighting diplomatic battles for the principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

Today that will to fight for a just world has become weaker. The so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ identifies an axis of evil and deals with it directly, curtailing the peacekeeping role of the UN. Multilaterism is in terminal decline at a time when the need for it has grown many fold due to the emergence of challenges related to the security of food, water and energy, climate change, regulation of the global financial markets and accountability of the transnational corporations.

The Foreword is full of alerts. It warns that the very nature of the world order is at stake today and it must not be left to be decided by groups and organisations created to serve a handful of countries and designed as instruments for perpetuating their domination. Most such organisations that have diminished the role of the UN are basically the clubs of major developed countries to which have been co-opted some important developing countries. They are not accountable to the vast majority of nations. Boutros-Ghali concludes with a plea for an arrangement to “hear the voice of the people within the UN”.

The volume gives little hope about a Just World. What about a just India? Has India got more fair and less unequal over the past decades? Dubey foresees widespread strife, conflicts and violence because of the persisting inequalities and social injustice. Richer class and the elite will continue to control the levers of power, he says. As to the world, it is getting more unjust. The people have come to accept Naipaul’s declaration that the world is what it is. If one wants to understand why it is so, the book has an excellent primer, titled “Hunt for Natural Resources: The Long View”, written by economist Amit Bhaduri.

Of course, this dismal view is not shared by all and the book is not titled The Shattered Dreams. Driven diplomats are not poets who feel wounded by setbacks. Former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said at the function: “Strangely, for all the discontent and gloom expressed about the consequences of globali-sation and neo-liberal policies in the book, it left me optimistic.”He said the failure to build a just world is no reason to give up our efforts. But he did cite the difficulty that while economic power has shifted its locus, military, political and ideological power has not.

The retired diplomats at the function may have felt nostalgic about the times when the Nehruvian legacy gave India a voice dispropor-tionate to its military might or economic muscle. A broad consensus prevailed on the foreign policy issues and some ideals were largely considered non-negotiable. Today the ideas and ideals that guided the Indian foreign policy practitioners are under scrutiny by the national security establishment as well as the ruling party ideologues. Some would like to turn India into a Pakistan in order to teach a lesson to Pakistan!

The constituency of the “realists” in the diplomatic fraternity is growing to keep pace with the expanding chest size of the New Leader. It pays special attention to American big business and the NRIs. It can hardly ignore the domestic anti-Pakistan lobby gaining stridency from the aggressive election-eve rhetoric used by the political leaders to collect votes and from the ultra-nationalism that the TV channels pump into homes to collect more money.

The Dubeys of the Third World fought hard, at times managing to safeguard the interests of the developing countries. But that was a different world when India too was different. Today’s world may make Dubey more determined to fight for a just world but the changed India would surely confuse him about the battle-lines. He functioned when the young idealist Foreign Service recruits and the political establishment, driven by shared ideals, thought on the same lines. Today the former will have to guess what the latter really wants and what India stands for.

The foreign policy establishment is coping with transition that challenges the best of minds. India is in the waiting room. At times it dresses up as a superpower in the hope of being enlisted to play that role. Then come moments when it is forced to slink into a corner as a developing nation. It has left the row of those sitting on the floor and eating and is yet to be granted a place at the High Table! Today a Muchkund Dubey won’t do. “The age demands an image of its accelerated grimace. Something for the modern stage.”

The reviewer is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.

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