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July 28, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Pritish Nandy

Time to change friends

Like most young people growing up in the sixties and seventies, I also hated the Americans.

It was fashionable to do so, in the first place. They behaved so badly with the rest of the world that even their own young people were disgusted with them. The ballads of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez revealed this. So did the poems of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. For whether it was Cuba or Vietnam or Iraq, America went out of its way to show the world how strong it was. But, sadly, no one saw them as strong. Everyone saw them as bullies. Obnoxious, obstreperous bullies.

That is why most young people in India, and in most parts of the emerging world as well as in America itself, sympathised with the victims of America. Be it Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse Tung or Fidel Castro or even Saddam Hussain. They were seen as the true heroes. America was this big, bad bully of a nation trying to suppress everyone else.

But slowly things changed. The Cold War ended and with the collapse of the Soviet Union the whole world suddenly figured out what a big lie Communism was. America may not have become a hero overnight but most of us realised the importance of democratic institutions, the sheer power of being a free society. It was no longer America versus the Soviet Union or China. It was democracy versus totalitarian regimes. Capitalism versus a defunct Communist order.

Most of us realised that, however, imperfect capitalism may be it was a damned sight better than what was happening in the Communist world. That an open society, whatever its faults, was far better than a closed one that spoke the language of egalitarianism but practised, in reality, a wicked, feudal system where the ruling elite kept an entire nation in shameful slavery. Communism was finally shown up for what it always was. The Great Lie. Romantic, yes. Utopian too. But, in reality, uglier than the ugliest system foisted on any people.

By comparison, the Americans (whatever their other faults may be) looked infinitely more civilised. And, quietly and discreetly, more and more people, including those who hated their cockiness, began to appreciate that it was better to have a unipolar world where America plays global cop than to live with the lie of the Cold War. For the Russians were no longer, by any stretch of imagination, a global power. Once their economy cracked open, they were shown up for what they actually were: a nation of thugs and slobs. The Mafiosi took over from where the KGB signed off.

The Chinese, on the other hand, were infinitely clever. They did not jettison Communism. They merely put it on the backburner and opened up their economy instead. By cosying up to America, they also managed to inveigle for themselves a Most Favoured Nation status which helped them to eventually emerge as the second most powerful economy in the world. Fuelled by huge American investment into their infrastructure even as they continued to violate human rights, strangle all political dissent and (at the same time) steal America's nuclear secrets from right under their nose.

What was also curious was the role of India.

For over half a century now we have practised democracy. Better, stronger democracy than most nations of the world. So strong has been our commitment to an open society, a free press, an independent judiciary and respect for human rights that we have (at times) paid a pretty steep price for it in terms of political uncertainty and lack of certitude in our economic decision making. Yet we have not compromised on freedom. We have cherished and nurtured it at all times.

Yet, strangely enough, when it came to taking sides on international issues, we were never on the side of the democracies. We were invariably with Russia and often on the same side as China. Two nations with whom we have nothing in common. Both practised totalitarianism in the name of Communism. Both lied to its people and the rest of the world. Both spurned freedom and human rights and did everything possible to ensure that democratic institutions never grew roots in their political system. Both were based on a decadent ideology and shopworn cliches that were no longer relevant in the modern world.

We were idiotic enough to believe that by associating with the likes of Russia and China we were actually emerging as a powerful leader of the Third World whereas (like China) we could have easily aligned ourselves with America and become a global power in our own right. America was equally stupid in believing that its future lay with nations like China and Pakistan, with whom it had nothing in common. One was busy murdering political dissent while the other saw itself as a great promoter of Islamic terrorism. Yet both lived off the largesse that America provided them.

Billions of American dollars were invested in China to build it into an economy that is today the envy of the whole world. Despite the fact that every American investor there knows that his investment is extremely vulnerable. There is no legal system as we know it that can protect it. Add to that corruption of such a high order that India looks like a nunnery by comparison. If you want to know what the fate of American businessmen in China can be, watch Red Corner, where Richard Gere plays the role of an American businessman who is entrapped and punished by the system for no fault of his. It is a frightening story of what Communist China actually is and what the fate of any American investor there can be.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is a basket case. It has no economy worth the name and, forget democratic rights, it is openly and unabashedly ruled by its mullahs and military chiefs. It is still economically alive (though just about) because of the cash and military aid doled out by America. In return for that aid, Pakistan provides shelter and support to America's worst enemy, Osama Bin Laden who openly encourages and funds terrorist strikes against the American government all over the world. Apart from, of course, fomenting trouble in Kashmir and destabilising many other parts of the world under the guise of avenging Islam.

If you think this is crazy you are right. India had no business sucking up to the Russians and the so-called non-aligned world, which was nothing but a bunch of effete gasbags. Similarly, America had no business playing footsie with Pakistan and the Chinese. India and America were actually natural allies. Bound together by political, economic and legal systems that had much too much in common and a rich tradition of independent thought and religious tolerance. We were stupid enough not to realise that our future lay with America. America was arrogant enough to believe that it could do without the world's second largest democracy and an economy that had infinitely greater potential than China and Russia put together.

It was a terrible mistake. A mistake that has cost both America and India far too much. America has given billions of dollars to unreliable allies who are now all set to use this money against America itself. India has delayed its own future as one of the world's great economies. While China has used the opportunity to emerge as a challenge to America itself and Pakistan has become a rogue state that is using American money to fuel Islamic fundamentalism and create instability in the South Asia region. In association with people like Bin Laden who have sworn to bring America to its knees.

Luckily, Kargil happened

Kargil has shown the world three things. One, that Pakistan is a terrorist state. (Which is why America did not rush to its help this time. Nor did China). Two, that India is strong enough to hammer Pakistan. (Which we did in less than a fortnight, forcing Nawaz Sharief to go running to Bill Clinton and seek a face saver). Three, that while Pakistan is ruled by mullahs and manic military bosses always eager to seek solutions in the battlefront, India is ruled by cautious and sensible political leaders who are dignified in victory and know when to call a stop to any confrontation.

Everyone has figured this out. Including China. Including America. Including Clinton, who has been brave enough to finally take that plunge and correct the tilt against India and, what is more important, reached out his hand of friendship to us.

It may not be fashionable to be friends with America. But that is part of an old, obsolete mindset that we must now change. It is also time for America to realise that this is where its future lies in Asia. With India. If the two of us can redesign our relationship and build on our common strengths, instead of suspecting each other's motives and bona fides, both India and America will benefit. Politically as well as commercially.

India need no longer waste its time changing the nappies of the Third World. It has a much larger destiny to fulfil. The quicker it globalizes, the quicker it will do so. While America will find in India an ally with whom it can share many common values. Starting with freedom of expression and a legal system that can compare with the finest in the world.

For too long has the strongest nation in the world played footsie with riffraff. It must realise that it has much more cultural compatibility with India than with Pakistan or China. We can share the future together because we believe in the same things. Because we have enshrined the same freedoms in our political system. That is why the future binds us together. America no longer needs to suck up to the dirty, rotten scoundrels of the world.

Pritish Nandy

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