Lyndon Johnson, India’s Modi and a cow named Bessie

The India-Nepal stand-off is only deepening following the visit by the Madhesi leadership from the Terai region to New Delhi, seeking, reportedly, fresh instructions on how to go about their agitation against their government in Kathmandu – whether to call off the agitation which disrupts life and is causing great hardship to the common people, or to rev it up, or to switch gear to violent resistance (a la LTTE’s struggle for justice in Sri Lanka in the early eighties).

What are...

What should Indian citizens get involved in fracas in a neighboring country?

Who hosted the Madhesi leaders in the Indian capital, who met them, and what they told the visitors lie below the radar. But what is perceptible is that Kathmandu has ‘hardened’ its approach. It has signed an accord with China to supply fuel and it has since made one attempt to crack down on the agitators blocking the bridge over the border with India.

In the crackdown, one Indian has been killed and the Nepali police took into custody several Indian nationals who were among the ‘agitators’. It is all becoming murky. Why should our citizens get involved in the fracas in a neighboring country? The speed and alacrity with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi called his Nepalese counterpart to express concern at the death of an Indian – something that he studiously refused to do even in the horrific Dadri killing – suggests deep sensitivity.

In Kathmandu, the perception is only getting entrenched that Indian agents provocatuers are behind the Madhesi agitation. What points in this direction is the decision by Kathmandu to dispatch their foreign minister to Geneva to raise the issue of the (alleged) Indian blockade of their land-locked country at the UN Human Rights Council.

Indeed, this is an unprecedented trend – our neighbors taking their problems and grievances vis-à-vis us to the UN forum. Pakistan recently handed in to the UN a dossier containing alleged Indian sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. It is now Nepal’s turn to allege that India is not conforming to the UN’s principles regarding the privileges of land-locked countries. To my mind, we are edging dangerously close to a Nepalese allegation at the UN forum that India is destabilizing that country.

Come to think of it, this is all happening at a time when the Modi government is burnishing India’s image to make it appear worthy of a seat in the UN Security Council as a permanent member. Quite obviously, there is some serious disharmony within the Indian establishment. It appears like a symphony without a conductor. India cannot insist on its credentials to contribute to the strengthening of international security when its neighbors complain that it is a state sponsoring terrorism or, worse still, a two-penny worth regional bully. Our choice is between the paths chosen by, say, Israel or Germany. We can’t traverse two paths simultaneously.

Above all, India is making a strategic mistake. It is shooting at its feet in Nepal by preparing a fertile ground for China to expand and deepen its influence in that country with no special effort. This is already evident from Beijing’s decision to effect emergency fuel supplies to Nepal. As the communication links between Tibet and Xinjiang on one side and Nepal on the other side begin to develop rapidly – there is some inevitability about it – the political, economic, cultural and people-to-people ties between the two countries will only accelerate.

How does India meet this challenge? As the noted editor on security issues Praveen Swami wrote in the Indian Express today, Indian policies are turning and turning in the same six-decades old groove, whereas the region has changed and the co-relation of forces in international politics has changed — and simply put, the zeitgeist has changed.

Indeed, what our policymakers do not realise is that India too has changed since it began opening up and to take to globalization in the early nineties, and that its top priority today ought to be regional stability. New Delhi is needlessly paranoid about its ‘influence’ in the region, not realizing that influence comes naturally with India’s growth and development. If the light shines brighter in Tibet or Xinjiang, the impoverished regions in their southern tier would only get attracted to them. That is the logic of life.

The sensible thing to do is to think about making our own pitiably impoverished regions along the northern border – in Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Sikkim, etc. – as well as the desperately poor country that Nepal is, to shine and this is best done by tapping into China’s market and capital. That is the only rational approach available to us. Some reports have appeared that Beijing is showing interest in cooperating with India in regard of Nepal’s stability and development. Why don’t we at least test the Chinese intentions?

But, alas, we won’t. So long as the ‘national security state’ mindset prevails, diplomacy takes a back seat. I am reminded of a remark by the then US President Lyndon Johnson at a formative period in the Vietnam War when he felt so exasperated at the role of the CIA that he hit out in his famously earthy way:

  • Let me tell you about these intelligence guys. When I was growing up in Texas, we had a cow named Bessie. I’d go out early and milk her. I’d get her in the stanchion, seat myself, and squeeze out a pail of fresh milk. One day I’d worked hard and gotten a full pail of milk, but I wasn’t paying attention, and old Bessie swung her shit-smeared tail through that bucket of milk. Now, you know, that’s what these intelligence guys do. You work hard and get a good program or policy going, and they swing a shit-smeared tail through it.

I can’t add much more to what Johnson said – except that we in India may see nothing wrong with shit-smeared milk (so long as it is cow’s milk) to make the brew for a chai pe charcha. But, on a serious note, Bessie is spoiling Modi’s grandiose vision on regional cooperation, which increasingly looks like the bullet train between New Delhi and Chennai that may only exist in thin air. With Nepal turning into an unfriendly mood, we can’t even hope to assemble a sub-regional grouping of SAARC to show the middle finger at Pakistan.

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