Tuesday, October 7, 2014


This column was written as Prime Minister Vajpayee departed for a visit to Washington. It made fun of the accompanying pomp, which has never impressed me, whether during my short time in the government, before it or after it. It was published in Business Standard of 3 October 2000.


The Prime Minister took over a hundred journalists on his westward peregrinations. That ensured him saturation coverage in the Indian media. But it also enabled the journalists to watch him every moment. What they saw overwhelmed their senses. So it happened that their dispatches were more descriptive of his knee than of him, of his pauses rather than of his speeches.
He was equally visible to anyone sitting in India, but I was less engrossed in these visual and auditory details. I did notice once that he had forgotten to have a haircut; but most of the time I could not recognize him in his black attire. Still, the foreign dignitaries in the pictures convinced me that he had achieved something important.
What was it then? It is easy to get entwined in matters of the moment – in his use of the word swayamsevek for himself, for instance. On the face of it, this is hardly a complimentary description; literally translated from Sanskrit, it means a self-server. Is that what the PM meant? Surely not; it is preferable to believe that his Sanskrit is imperfect – though it is probably not as bad as that of the average Rastriya Swayamsevak. None of them can properly translate political. They all say raajneetik; the correct term is raajnaitik. But swayamsevak reflects knowledge of English rather than ignorance of Sanskrit – it is a literal translation of volunteer. Gandhi was a volunteer in the ambulance corps and carried the wounded and the dead during the Boer War; the translation probably goes back to him, or at least to the Congress after his arrival on the Indian political scene. I could go on, but I meant to write about the PM’s flight, not about rashtriya swayamsevaks’ misuse of Sanskrit, our elegant heritage.
Anyway, when we judge the PM’s travels, we must get away from the literal, the visual, the incidental, and try to get to the essence. It was, above all else, a procession. Not the kind of procession we are familiar with – not like a procession of noisy jholawallahs demonstrating against the hated multinationals. To understand its real significance, we must go back to our cultural roots. It would be difficult in normal circumstances since the roots stretch back a few millennia, but our task has been facilitated by that wonderful invention, the television. Especially after the Hindu ascent to power, our television channels are full of documentaries about our ancient kings; so we can get a fairly accurate idea of what a triumphal procession is. It consists of a king, usually on an elephant, followed by richly accoutred and elegantly armoured courtiers. For a white elephant read an Air India plane, for courtiers read journalists, and for swords read pens, and you have got the point.
What triumph were they processing about? Where was the victory? In the modern age, it is people’s minds, not bodies, that victories are won over. Especially if the people are high and mighty like the Americans. Ever since Nehru spurned Kennedy’s hand of friendship, the Americans have been pretty rude to us. Admittedly, our foreign servants gave as good as they got; Krishna Menon established very low levels of abuse, and our foreign servants have fully matched his rigorous standards. But the Americans are really masters of rudeness. And they did not only talk filthy; they often backed it up with action. After our nuclear ceremony (of which more later), they asked all Indian scientists who were spending time in US laboratories to pack their bags and go home. Just like that. Those of our bureaucrats who have had to confront the Americans in the UN, in the GATT and elsewhere have vivid memories of their bad manners. 
Then their king, Clinton, announced an end to the unpleasantries by coming to India and saying really nice things; he called a truce in the war of words. That was the triumph the PM went to celebrate. The triumph was all the more remarkable in view of the depths plumbed by American invective after our nuclear ceremony. The ceremony was intended to make other countries more respectful towards India. That it did not do so to America is understandable, since it has 25000 nuclear balls against our six. But still, they should not have got ruder; that was not the intention of the ceremony: it was not done. So we had to stage another ceremony to change their tune. Luckily, the Pakistanis gave us an opportunity by sneaking in 3000 armed men into the mountains one winter while our soldiers were warming themselves in the vale of Kashmir. The logical thing would have been to throw them out at least cost to us; we should have attacked Pakistan where it was most vulnerable, or at least surrounded the intruders so that we could finish them off at leisure. But that would have been too rational: it would not have been ceremonial. The correct way was scrupulously to respect the line of actual control that the Pakistanis had contemptuously ignored, and send infantrymen up steep hills for the intruders to kill. Slaughter was often an integral feature of our ancient ceremonies, called yajnas; the age-old traditions had to be respected.
Strange are the ways of the world. The fiery blasts of our nuclear ceremony did not make the Americans respectful; but the slaughter ceremony at Kargil opened their eyes. They thought, these Indians are different; and they changed their attitude towards us. Just how are we different? They have not revealed it to us; and in the absence of their testimony, it is not possible to give a definite answer. At best we can narrow down the alternative answers to two.
One is that we are a great country. We have the second largest population, the third largest army and the fourth largest economy in the world. This greatness was not reflected in the respect other countries gave us. That was an anomaly. Our rulers have proceeded to remove this anomaly by staging a series of ceremonies which will make other countries conscious of our greatness. Three years and three great ceremonies have convinced the greatest of them, the United States of America. Admittedly, when our foreign minister went to Peking to collect their respect, the Chinese were pretty rude instead; the holy ceremonies somehow did not work on them. But the ceremonies, accompanied by two years’ sustained rudeness, made the Japanese change their tune; their prime minister himself came to pay respects.

The other answer is that our current rulers hunger for respect. They are lacking in self-confidence; they suffer from an inferiority complex. It would not be surprising, seeing that India has not done terribly well economically; besides, our current rulers have their own reasons for embarrassment. Not an impressive bunch of people. So they go about saying, “Respect us! Respect us!” Which irritates egotists like the Chinese. But intelligent people like the Americans and the Japanese cannot believe their luck: these Indians do not want aid, investment, trade, nothing tangible; just tell them they are great guys, and they will hug and kiss you in gratitude.