Modi’s Still There, Innit?
Why do we deal with Saudi Arabia? It isn’t really a country known to share too many qualities with lovely, democratic India – or, at any rate, qualities that we would like to emulate here. The lack of free speech, political freedom, women’s rights, not to mention the export-quality crazy-mullah Wahabi version of Islam, are features that should, on paper, turn off even the most realpolitick-tocking Delhi administration. And they do.
But who says you can be facebook friends only with friends? We continue to engage with Riyadh for reasons which are useful to us. And the reasons go beyond petro-resources, remittances and our penchant for bling in general. One primal reason for us maintaining chummy relations with the House of Saud was amply made clear earlier this week when the media reported that another suspected terrorist allegedly responsible for the 2010 bomb attack in Bangalore was detained and deported to India by the Saudi authorities.
Fasih Mehmood, who was wanted by Indian authorities in connection with the 2010 attack, is in Indian custody ready to face Indian justice. Thanks to the Saudis, whose conduct in their own backyard should give us the heebie-jeebies if they don’t already, the third suspect in the Bangalore blast has been detained in the last four months and is now up for questioning for his suspected role in the September 19, 2010 Jama Masjid terrorist attack in Delhi as well. Jolly good show, I say chaps!
So it seems that, quite in line with the norms of diplomacy (and, indeed cost-benefit ethics), we can maintain friendly relations with an embarrassing entity. If Gabbar Singh strikes a deal with parents by which he makes their children go to sleep at night so that the todgers don’t drive their parents crazy, it would be okay to look away when he goes pillaging a village nearby. A few necessary remarks to maintain our love for law and order can be made. But if we’ve already told Gabbar that we need to make these remarks not to look like daku-lovers, he’ll understand.
As does Saudi Arabia.
But India doesn’t even have much of a decent track record about mouthing “concerns” when it comes to “friends” who are the source of such concerns. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, democratic but “non-aligned” India under Jawaharlal Nehru maintained “that, according to facts in his possession… What appeared to have occurred in Hungary is a civil conflict on rather a large scale, to begin with, among the Hungarians themselves”. (Nehru at the All India Congress Committee meet in Calcutta, November 9, 1956.)
India didn’t even bother to come up with any show of “concern” when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Indian UN representative, as mentioned in George Perkovich’s book, India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation, had stated that the Soviet forces had been “invited” by the Afghan government and that the Government of India had “no reason to doubt assurances that they would withdraw when requested to do so by the Afghan government”. It was only after the newly elected prime minister Indira Gandhi came under a lot of pressure – even from within the Non-Aligned Movement – and after a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, that she issued a statement about no country having the right to enter another country.
So, why this mini-lecture on the history of Indian diplomacy all of a sudden? Well, what applies to Saudi Arabia also applies to India’s pirouette in its Tibet and Burma policies, the latter turning out to be a bit of an embarrassment with a political thaw breaking out in Myanmar even as India was getting to be buddies with the Junta and expected the ice to remain frozen.
In all cases, Saudi, Myanmarese, Tibetan and Soviet, India’s dealings have been conducted according to that primary rule of “national interest”. If some things are good for the country, even if that means hanging out with a thug or two, it’s worth pursuing. As we’ve learnt independently of the virtues of what the American Secretary of State Cordell Hull once said of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch. But he’s our son-of-a-bitch”.
Which, of course, leads me finally to Britain “re-engaging” with Narendra Modi and the news upsetting a lot of folks both here in India and Britain. While I can understand the outrage in some quarters of Britain, with shades of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler coming to some imaginative minds, I’m a little bemused to find Indian liberals finding the “thaw” ghastly. British High Commissioner James Bevan explained his meeting with Narendra Modi, under whose administration thousands of Muslims were murdered by goons affiliated to his party and government, that it was an “engagement with Gujarat and Gujarat as a whole and not an engagement with any individual”.
Responding to media queries, Bevan said that he disagreed with perceptions that Britain was “rehabilitating” or “endorsing” Modi, who for all his Gangnam-style wooing of foreign investment (his last serious wooing for business buddies before the Brits came knocking were the Japanese) still remains under the shadow of being the hand that unleashed – or, at least, didn’t rein in – the 2002 Gujarat riots.
And here, I tend to agree with Bevan. Let’s face it. As an outsider, I’m looking not at Modi but at India as a whole. A chief minister of a state against whom major human rights and law and order charges are yet to be proved or disproved; who is in the reckoning to be the next prime minister of India by pretty much every Indian media platform; who continues to be chief minister of the state since the riots took place through the democratic machinery of free and fair elections; and – most importantly for an outsider – seems to be one of the few people in Indian public service with whom doing business does not involve taking up one of those impossible, nerve-wracking Kama Sutra positions… Frankly, to continue boycotting the state he administers simply because he’s still administering it, seems a bit odd.
With most of the British business community of Patels – which can be a rather large portion of Britain’s business community – finding little reason for Britain to sidestep doing business with Gujarat, I would think Bevan and his bosses must have thought this through before finally saying, “Hey! Everyone in India, even those who are convinced that Narendra Modi is a ‘mass murderer’ are doing business with Gujarat. So why, when we need some money in these dark times, sit out?”
And with the government of India not really the paragon of virtue when it comes to dealing with artful dodgers and worse, the British figured that it would deal with Gujarat on Indian terms. Last heard, no one clamped sanctions against Gujarat from New Delhi.
So while Britain has decided to “re-engage” with Gujarat and its infamous chief minister – something that the European Union continues not to – what I’m curious to know is why we here in India are judging Britain for hanging out again with Modi. We’ve been hanging out with Modi all this while. And I’m not even going to go back to why, despite all the good things that come out of it, we hang out with the rotters in Riyadh.
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