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The nattering nabobs of negativity

Last updated on: November 16, 2007 16:14 IST
It is scarcely possible to calculate the damage we might inflict on ourselves if the India-USA nuclear deal got finally scuttled -- as also, ironically, the benefits we might derive if it went through.

A national flaw, however, obstructs this vision. India has a streak of self-destructive impulse.

In the immediate context this manifests itself in scruffy coalition politics but the flaw is deeper, age-old, and reappears time and again in different ways.

We are our own worst enemies. We refused the offer of a permanent seat on the Security Council, so preoccupied we once were with the recognition of mainland China by the United Nations -- only to have ourselves become now an international supplicant for it.

Britain and even Pakistan's Ayub Khan made overtures of help during China's grab of Tibet; we spurned them -- only to later beseechingly appeal for help from the United States when China invaded in 1962.

Several other instances can also be ruefully cited which continue to cast their shadow -- over generosity embalmed in Article 370 on Kashmir, the missed opportunity for a uniform common law presented by the Shah Bano episode, a series of pre-Independence 'Himalayan Blunders,' especially the suspicious and premature rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan led by Lord Pethick-Lawrence for an undivided India sent by the British Government in 1946, and on and on, not to dwell on the deeper history of India.

Each of these examples can be explained away as being complex and as having the benefit of easy hindsight. True to an extent this may be, but a pattern does seem to emerge which calls for some reflection, collective insight and corrective action. The Indonesian proverb, 'To understand everything is to be badly informed,' has, I think, special relevance for the all-understanding India.

With our civilisational proclivity to identify with everything in a grand pantheistic sweep -- awash in a sea of sentiment -- even for the murderous Mao's mainland China -- we do run the risk of not seeing the obvious, the immediate. To live perennially in an over-tolerant blur is to become undiscriminating, imprecise and ineffective.

The nuclear quagmire illustrates our historic bent towards shooting ourselves in the foot, our indecisiveness, and the perils or the pretensions of an unbounded 'universalism.'

It is amazing that we are so obsessed by this 'universalist' sentiment, this desire to please everyone that we are ready to jettison that which we consider to be in the national interest! One may -- grudgingly -- even respect this sentiment if it was genuine. But if it originates from the greed of votes and power, by the Congress as well as by the Left parties -- as it seems to -- nothing could signify more that India's destiny is in shaky hands.

Nor has the BJP come out with flying colours in this noisy catfight. Indeed, far from it. Everyone knows that had it been in power it would have loved to succeed in crafting a similar deal, which, alas, its major opponent, the Congress party, has now been able to cobble together.

Stewing in its jealous juices, it has foxily eyed the ongoing babble between the Congress and the Left parties, waiting to jump in for advantage at the opportune moment. The talk about the Hyde Act is a fig leaf to cover its selfish inaction and lack of a bipartisan spirit in the interest of the nation.

Why is the nuclear treaty in the national interest?

As to its technical merits and demerits, the debate has gone on for the longest time. They -- the scientific community, the economists, the industrial-military complex, the climatologists, the energy experts -- the whole swarm of 'Argumentative Indians' -- would continue to debate and divide till doomsday.

Relying only on the technobabble will lead us nowhere. It is clear that the decision has to be made on a larger basis -- on the gestalt of the entire situation in which India finds itself today.

Geostrategic considerations are, of course, foremost. Only a person with an IQ less than room temperature would fail to notice India's current predicament in this context. And it also happens to be an old predicament for which we never prepared in the past: It behooves that we do so now.

We are situated between vast expanses of populations headed by rulers and political parties of extremist persuasions -- some of them again lusting for land and resources that are not theirs, some comrade-types looking for ideological converts, and some Taliban-types looking once again for religious converts. Such vast domains stretch endlessly and ominously to the north, east and west of India today. And between them there are friendships, brotherhoods, and alliances -- even perhaps covert defence pacts.

For crying aloud, we also need friends. It is hogwash to think that the treaty would usher India into becoming subservient to the US. Professor Stephen P Cohen of the Brookings Institution has rightly said that India -- which he calls a 'civilisational State' -- would not be subordinate to anyone. Such self-doubts on our part are self-defeating.

The BJP makes it out that the Congress party is being wrong headed in giving an iconic status to the nuclear deal. But the treaty is a robust icon of India-US friendship, symbolically and substantively. If it finally becomes a reality, it is a statement of a kind that would be heard loud and clear in the rest of the world. If India backs out of it now after the US has accorded it an exceptional status and persuaded others also to do so, the ignominy would be ours.

Much of the above about friendship with the US is abstract and political and pragmatic -- in sum, the most selfish view of the relationship. More important, it is to see the emotional foundations of this friendship and facts relating to it and to compare it with other relationships, for our own record. What do we find?

Survey after survey have shown that people of India are favourably disposed towards the United States -- more so than the European allies of America. India has ranked near the top in the confidence and support of the United States.

A recent (2005-2006), largest-ever (212.563 households), random, nationally representative (rural-urban, income, state, gender, age, education) survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania showed unequivocally that Indians have the warmest feelings towards the US followed by Japan (least for Pakistan). Indians see the US as worthy of emulation but are wary of its power. Even in Kerala and West Bengal ruled by the Left parties -- the harshest opponents of closer relations with the US -- respondents showed clear preference for relationship with US over China.

Statistically, the survey did not show a difference in states with higher Muslim population from those with lower concentration; it did not support the generally held view that Muslims are anti-US. Interestingly, the evidence shows that the poor as well as the elite prefer the US to other countries.

Thus, the argument of the Left parties that it is the elite in India that are using the deal to drive the country closer to the US seems to lack substance. It would appear that to the contrary it is the ideology-driven elitist leadership in the Left parties that is going against the wishes of 'the people!'

Next, if we enquire where do Indians want to go as immigrants and as students? Also, where can they go? Where do they succeed?

The answer is, once again, the USA.

Indians rapidly are rising to the top in the United States. They do better than almost any other ethnic group. Indian Muslims as well. Other Muslims as well, including the present prime minister of Pakistan, have achieved distinguished positions in the US. Yes, some of them may have received special scrutiny at airports -- as indeed I have at times on random basis at US airports.

At personal level, Indians and Americans get along very well; they have similar life values. Both are gregarious, verbal, friendly, open, informal people. Their political outlook is similar -- secular and pluralistic. India and the United States both have an unfettered intellectual culture and a tradition of open debate.

Can one say this of Russia, China or of Saudi Arabia?

Is it then surprising that their respective governments have been able to put together under difficult political circumstances the proposed treaty, which would end India's nuclear isolation? India's stature as a non-signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty but a non-proliferator by behaviour and principle has been vindicated.

Taking a cue from T S Eliot's 'In my end is my beginning,' I go back to where I began.

Even as Indians and Americans are similar in many ways, they are also dissimilar in one major way. Americans are a highly constructive people -- almost to the point of a defect. They make up in action what they may lack in emotion. Indians on the other hand, as I said at the beginning, lack in constructive action but make it up in affection.

As major world civilisations, we need to learn from each other. In direct personal contact we seem to do this -- and succeed. But would we as governments?

Or -- to borrow an inelegant phrase of a disreputable vice-president of a disreputable president of the US (both were removed) -- would 'the nattering nabobs of negativity' in us destroy a good treaty?

Dr Shashi K Pande was a full-time associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University in USA and later professor and director of the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi in India.

Dr Shashi Pande