Wishful thinking

ON May 28, during President Pratibha Patil’s visit to China, many newspapers and almost all TV channels gleefully reported that her host, President Hu Jintao, had “declared China’s support” for a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council. Nothing of the sort had happened, of course. Indeed, a minority of mediapersons accompanying the President had the good sense to point out that neither Mr Hu nor Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had made any such commitment but in a carefully crafted statement had made some courteous remarks about India’s quest for a seat on the high table at Turtle Bay.
Even a cursory glance at what China’s two top leaders actually said underscores the point. Their exact words were: “China understands and supports India’s aspirations and desires to play a greater role in the UN, especially in the Security Council. The two neighbours should strengthen their cooperation on Security Council reforms, working especially towards expanding the representation of developing countries”. This is slightly more polite than what the Chinese had said five years ago when the UN had last taken up vainly the question of expanding the Security Council. The stark truth is that while vaguely expressing similar sentiments even then, China, with the tacit support of the United States, had successfully stymied the entire exercise. Where the Chinese leaders wished to support India they did so clearly and categorically. Both Mr Hu and Mr Wen stated that China would back India’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for a two-year period beginning January 1, 2011.
Despite all this, it is no surprise that mediapersons in the President’s entourage jumped to extravagantly optimistic conclusion and splashed it. For, wishful thinking has unfortunately become one of India’s banes, not merely among the media and the general public but also in the ranks of policymakers. Whether in this particular case the officials in the President’s delegation tried to influence the over enthusiastic journalists one way or the other is not known. However, there have been numerous occasions in the past when even policymakers at the highest level have been victims of the malaise of wish being the father of the thought. Let me cite a few distressing instances, beginning with two concerning China.
From the dawn of Independence to the mid-50s of the last century — which was the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai era, despite a brief interlude of acrimony in 1950 when the People’s Liberation Army had marched into Tibet — India kept complaining that Chinese maps were showing large parts of India as China’s territory. Every time, the reply of Zhou Enali, Chinese Prime Minister (1949-76), was that these were “old maps” that New China hadn’t had time to “review”. All concerned in India, from top to bottom, interpreted this to mean that these map would be “revised” to India’s satisfaction!
For this reason, among others, New Delhi decided not to raise the border issue with Beijing even when, in December 1953, the two started negotiating a treaty for “trade and intercourse between the Tibet region of China and India”. The agreement was signed on June 29, 1954. It incorporated in its preamble the five principles of peaceful coexistence later called Panchsheel. It also listed the Himalayan passes through which Indian pilgrims could travel to Kailash and Mansarovar and Tibetan ones to Benaras and Sarnath. This is when the first instalment of wishful thinking got compounded by the second. As the top secret files of the ministry of external affairs on the 1954 agreement with China would show, if ever they are declassified, South Block was certain that with this document (which lapsed in June 1962) India and China had settled their border except at “what we call Bara Hoti and the Chinese call Wu tse and some other such small areas”. The rude awakening came in 1959. The rest is history.
To be sure, the Chinese side never played straight. It bypassed the border issue rather disingenuously, with the wily Zhou pretending that the 1954 agreement had settled only those issues that were “ripe for solution”. The border issue hadn’t been taken up because it wasn’t then ripe. The question is that even if we failed to notice this double-dealing then, shouldn’t due attention be paid to Chinese ambiguity and ambivalence today?
What happened in relation to China during the Fifties was repeated in a different context in the Sixties. I vividly remember what happened at Tashkent on the night of January 10, 1966 during the short interval between the signing of the Tashkent Declaration by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Field Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan and Shastri’s sudden death. Four top aides of the Prime Minister constantly cajoled four of us journalists and commentators to write that India had achieved its two main objectives: a no-war declaration by Pakistan; and its commitment to “respect the Ceasefire Line” in Jammu and Kashmir. They were impervious to our argument that the declaration’s language — Pakistan’s reiteration of its “commitment” to the UN charter that says that disputes should be settled peacefully; and its agreement to “maintain ceasefire conditions on the Ceasefire Line” — did not warrant their conclusions. The tragedy of the Prime Minister’s passing ended the debate.
The Tashkent spirit evaporated fast. The 1972 Simla Accord was the next landmark after which Indian complacency was stronger and lasted longer, until it was punctured by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s refusal to honour his verbal assurances to Indira Gandhi.
Full 44 years after Tashkent and a week after the presidential visit to China, old habits asserted themselves yet again in Washington after the encouraging strategic dialogue. Ironically, the issue was once again India’s quest for a permanent Security Council seat. Since the TV covered the event live, everyone could see the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, smile meaningfully, while pointing out that there was “no consensus” on the reform of the Security Council nor could one be expected soon. However, when the occasion arose, the US would “consider” India’s claim. How does this amount to an unambiguous American commitment to a permanent Security Council seat for us? Yet most Indian observers seem convinced that America endorses our quest squarely.

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