An anxious 2012

As 2011 ends, to vary George Orwell’s quip in Animal Farm, while all years are equal this one was more equal than others. Many Indian and international icons passed away, tyrants perished and a fourth wave of democratisation commenced.

Delhi yawned through the centennial of the 1911 Delhi Durbar, which reverted political power to the historic capital. The United States grieved on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, as fighting in Afghanistan still raged, its outcome debated in Bonn. In New Delhi, homage was paid, on another 10th anniversary i.e. the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, to the 10-odd staff and security who negated the attempted decapitation of the entire Indian political elite.
India bid adieu to Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor, and the world to Elizabeth Taylor — all three having dispensed joy and catharsis to billions. A different departing quartet were Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il, Muammar Gaddafi and the former Czech President Vaclav Havel. The first a proto-global terrorist, the next a callous, effete dictator, the third an almost-nuclear weapon possessing Nasser caricature, and the last a symbol of the human spirit’s triumph over evil. They left unresolved the future of militant Islam, the implosion or political re-birth of Democratic Republic of Korea and the future of democracy, human rights and liberalism in a world turned upside-down by street movements ranging from the Wall Street to Tahrir Square, Jantar Mantar to the Tibetan plateau’s self-immolations. The yearning for humane and responsive governance, a forlorn shout when articulated in Vaclav Havel’s 1988 treatise, The Power of the Powerless, is today a universal demand.
Can the Indian leadership, distracted by inflation, slowing growth and corruption confront the imbroglio? While the malaise of corruption is condemned across the political firmament, there is disagreement on the means. The government fears the Lokpal becoming a Frankenstein’s monster; the Anna camp equates governmental trepidation with deceit. The truth rests in between. Purging corruption needs systemic and attitudinal changes like enforcing intra-party democracy and state funding of elections as well as transparency in decision-making and curbing of discretionary powers etc. Criminal jurisprudence recognises that punishment alone is a poor deterrent. In Tudor/Elizabethan England even petty theft resulted in death sentence. People gathered to watch public hangings had their pockets picked again.
Amongst the external challenges in 2012 looms Afghanistan. US troops added during the surge will withdraw by September 2012, before the US presidential elections in November. The Bonn II Conference on December 5, ten years after Bonn I, which conceptualised the post-Taliban constitutional structure in Afghanistan, was a muted success. The absence of a sulking Pakistan and truculent Taliban underscored the challenge. On the positive side, 85 countries and 1,000 delegates re-committed themselves to assisting Afghanistan beyond 2014. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s return to Pakistan, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani belligerent riposte to the Pakistan Army and the judiciary’s prevarication over memogate has muddied the picture. Despite frequent murmurs that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may visit Pakistan, it appears unlikely till US-Pakistan relations and civil-military vibes in Pakistan are normalised. If Imran Khan’s Karachi rally rivals his earlier one in Lahore, it may indicate the shifting of Pakistani public opinion beyond the traditional Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)-Pakistan People’s Party-Army dialectics. Should not serious engagement with Pakistan await the outcome?
Sino-Indian relations will remain testy. The 2012 leadership changes in China, mounting criticism of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s unsuccessful neighbourhood policy, economic slowdown and the possibly unmanageable property bubble, besides anxiety over US President Barack Obama’s Asian pivot are likely to preoccupy the Chinese. The India-Japan-US meeting last week in Washington is to be welcomed. However, India’s nervous response to an India-Australia-US conclave was inappropriate, particularly after the Australian Labour Party cleared the uranium exports to India. Indian engagement with like-minded nations on Chinese periphery must be continuous. After all has not China brutally pressed into South Asia, unmindful of Indian concerns?
Dr Singh’s Russia visit from December 15-17 raises many issues. First, Dr Singh announcing the immediate commissioning of Koodankulam nuclear reactor, despite Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s reservations, was inappropriate as it needed resolution in Chennai and not Moscow. Secondly, it was unsavoury for the leader of India to wish Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s electoral success when Russians are continuing to demonstrate over election rigging.
Furthermore joining the Russian chorus on salient international issues is regressing to the nonaligned mode of pontificating without responsibility. On West Asia and North Africa, the hackneyed position on non-use of force and resolution of the Palestinian issue as per initiatives of dead, deposed or degraded Arab leaders is reiterated. Does not India with the world’s third largest Muslim population and a Shia population next only to Iran have anything original to suggest?
On disarmament and non-proliferation, pious homilies aside, did Russia explain why it allowed the Nuclear Suppliers Group to restrict enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology export to India? The anxiety, however, of both is palpable on Iran. Both want the nuclear stand-off to be tackled by diplomatic means. Neither explains how, when past dialogue and four sets of UN sanctions have been unable to stop Iran crawling towards weapons capability, more dialogue will help. Understandably both may need Iran if, post-US withdrawal, the Pakistan-Taliban alliance attempts a power grab in Kabul. This is, however, not the Iran that both knew in the period 1996-2001. A recent low profile visit by extremely influential Akbar Velayati, adviser to the Supreme Leader, has given India an opening.
The danger of an Israel-Iran confrontation remains real as the former has heightened paranoia due to the Arab Spring’s deleterious consequences in its neighbourhood. Iran contrariwise has its options expanding in Iraq following the US withdrawal, though degraded in Syria. In reality the reverse may be happening as now Iran may directly face Sunni angst in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The ministry of external affairs in April 2012 will host the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit. While Brazil reels under corruption charges like India, the Russian economy remains lethally dependent on oil and gas. Some are pejoratively referring to them as broken bricks. Havel ruminated that the “real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant... what if... it has been here and only our blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it”. How well it applies to an India resplendent as 2011 dawned and confused as it ends. The time is now to look inward, build consensus and consolidate.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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