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Guess who's coming to dinner?
January 23, 2004
Kalyan Singh is being invited to secret meetings with leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the details are then leaked to the media. Manmohan Singh flies down to garland Karunanidhi and George Fernandes takes the next flight to Chennai for parleys with Jayalalithaa. One would have to be blind not to notice the fact that a general election is around the corner. But even if the prime minister is forced to postpone a long-planned trip to South-East Asia, that does not mean that the rest of the world is paying no attention to India.
Come January 30, and the nation shall be playing host to two distinguished foreigners -- David Blunkett, Britain's home secretary, and Abdul Rahman Wahid, the former Indonesian president. Both men happen to be blind, but that happens to be the least interesting thing about them.
Let us start with Blunkett. One would expect that a home secretary in a Labour Party administration would be the epitome of the liberal consciousness. Nothing of the sort! Blunkett sometimes makes the Tories seem rather namby-pamby on law and order issues...
Blunkett assumed his historic office shortly after Jack Straw left the Home Office in the wake of allegations that his son had been caught trading in marijuana. It was also shortly after some towns in northern England had been torn by race riots; a few months later, the World Trade Center attacks took place. It was clearly no time to for a weak or vacillating personality to be at the Home Office in Britain and those are the last adjectives one could use of Blunkett.
He began by appalling the Left in his own party by vowing to use water cannons against rioters. (The traditional, politically correct, response would have been to set up a commission of enquiry to look into the rioters' grievances!) In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Blunkett moved to introduce detention centres for people seeking political asylum in Britain. (Contrast that with the howls of outrage that ensue when the police in, say, Delhi even speak of cracking down on Bangladeshi immigrants.)
Whatever his bleeding-heart detractors may say, the fact is that Blunkett knows more about poverty than they do. His father died when David was a mere 12 years old, and the family was bankrupt for a long time after that. 'There is nothing,' Blunkett wrote later, 'even faintly romantic about being poor and hungry.'
Given the appalling amount of rubbish I read in the reports coming out of the recent socialist jamboree in Mumbai, this is a refreshing dose of commonsense. (The recipe to be a socialist these days consists, it seems, in equal parts of bashing onešs own nation and breast-beating for the poor. I would have taken this more seriously had it not turned out that several of the delegates were parking themselves at the Taj!)
Turning to the other distinguished guest, this is not the first time that Abdul Rahman Wahid is coming to India. On his last trip, he came as head of state of the nation with the largest Muslim population. It was a time when India's relations with Pakistan were nothing short of horrible, and President Wahid asked Prime Minister Vajpayee why this was so. The prime minister politely replied that, though he personally sought peace, it was one of those times in one's life when one had to take hard decisions for the sake of the nation.
'I understand,' the Indonesian leader responded, 'Isn't that what Kumbhakarna said when ordered to fight Lord Rama!' (The Ramayana says Kumbhakarna advised his brother to restore Sita to her husband, but fell in with Ravana out of his loyalty to his country.) Several jaws dropped open in sheer surprise; the last thing anyone had expected was a foreign leader to be so familiar with the Indian epics that he could cite from the Ramayana! (Or the Bhagwad Gita.)
Actually, many Indonesians possess something better than a nodding acquaintance with Indian scriptures. It is not for nothing that their national airline is named after Lord Vishnu's mount.
We have all read that 'foreign origins' will be a hot topic in the general election. Personally, there are issues that interest me far more. Is a potential prime minister willing to jettison the socialist rhetoric that has damaged India so badly in the past? How well is a future leader of India acquainted with her history and traditions? These are but two of the topics that, to me, are of greater concern than foreign birth alone.
T V R Shenoy