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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Twenty years of looking east

A veteran diplomatist's anthology is a seminal work of contemporary and future interest

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

Lee Hsien Loong, who was in India this week, would have chuckled over Preet Malik’s admission of “bureaucratic delays for which India remains infamous” in an anthology of 15 essays to mark the 20th anniversary of P V Narasimha Rao’s Preet is remembered and liked in both Singapore (where, as a young diplomat, he got married) and Kuala Lumpur where he was high commissioner.

As Lee told me when I was writing about his father’s courtship of India (Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India), both countries inherited the same colonial bureaucracy. India followed the Fabian model demanding approvals at every stage. Singapore opted for “more of a free market, laissez-faire approach, not totally hands off but the default position is ‘Yes’, and as few signatures and approvals as possible are necessary.” A leading Singaporean businessman, Sat Pal Khattar, complained more bluntly that if an Indian bureaucrat can say “No”, he will do so.

In a way, Two Decades of India’s Look East Policy: Partnership for Peace, Progress and Prosperity, that the veteran diplomatist, Amar Nath Ram, edited under Indian Council of World Affairs auspices, reminded me of the legendary blind Brahmins asked to describe an elephant after touching it. No description was untrue but they fell short of the truth. Each contributor (mainly external affairs ministry “insiders” who handled relations with Southeast Asia) set down his perception, which Ram published unaltered. Thus, Malik dates Look East to Rao’s historic visit to Singapore in 1994, but 20 pages later, Salman Haidar breezily tells us it “was a rather off-the-cuff slogan” coined for the prime minister’s visit to South Korea the previous year. The implication is that the dull old dhoti-draped politico had nothing to do with the brainwave of those bright Oxbridge boys in South Block.

Some give all the credit for looking east to Rajiv Gandhi, which 10 Janpath please note. The less ambitious recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision. Passionate patriots like declare that India has never looked anywhere but the east. Bali beware, with uncharacteristic parochialism, Lalit Mansingh urges modern Odisha to follow ancient Kalinga’s Balijatra!

Frivolity aside and even without my particular interest in the subject, Two Decades of India’s is an important work of contemporary and future interest well worth the Rs 695 price. Ram’s Introduction and sound account of the first decade provide a firm anchor but I wish other contributors had been less squeamish about the past. The bankruptcy and American pressure that forced Rao to prise Indian diplomacy out of traditional moorings merits candid discussion. We also deserve an authoritative explanation for India’s late rapprochement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Many Indians believe (like the late J N Dixit) that India spurned Asean’s invitation to join. Every original Asean member will tell you there was no such invitation. Some saw India as a Soviet appendage. Others feared being dragged into India-Pakistan squabbles. They also expected poverty-stricken socialist India, defeated by China but still moralising, to be a drag on their thrusting new organisation. Subliminally, many Southeast Asians resented their cultural debt to India. Thailand’s Maha Chakri Princess Sirindhorn warned me it was tactless to speak of Indian influence. The neutral “Indic” was preferable. Indira Gandhi sent M C Chagla to canvass an alternative to Asean but the regional capitals took no notice.

The future matters even more. China’s rise and America’s robust Pacific strategy demand bold new initiatives from India and many will endorse Shyam Saran’s lament that “we under-utilize our cultural assets in the pursuit of our diplomatic goals.” A whole world is waiting to be tapped but when Singapore mounts imaginative exhibitions like KalaChakra and On the Nalanda Trail, the organisers have a hell of a time persuading Indian museum curators to cooperate. Rajiv Sikri rightly says the 2004 Indian-Asean car rally “was a huge success of India’s public diplomacy”. But in calling it the “first ever” such event, K Ravi should have mentioned it was also the last.

These flashes in the pan underline the message of another contributor, Suryakanthi Tripathi, “Know the East. Impress the East. Engage the East. Invest in the East. Invite the East. Integrate the East in our policy domain.” In other words, keep at it. Business is the lifeblood of a relationship that demands a “predictable regulatory regime and a hassle-free, rules-based business environment,” as Lee put it, instead of India’s “complicated” environment.

Ram’s anthology is another reminder that “we neglect this opportunity at our peril,” as Saran warns.  

First Published: Sat, July 14 2012. 00:58 IST