Out of My Mind: Forward to the past

There is a message here. Your core supporters are idealistic. But if you follow their advice, you will stay in the Opposition.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published: March 23, 2014 3:54:01 am
Former British Labour party politician Tony Benn. (AP) Former British Labour party politician Tony Benn. (AP)

Two names last week have conjured up the past. Tony Benn, a Member of Parliament for 50 years and the son, grandson and father of MPs, died last week. He was a nice, kind man; ever a gentleman. During the1960s, he was a middle of the road member of the Labour Party and an enthusiast for new technology — he was responsible for Concorde and for designing the UK post code which is an alphameric rather than a numeric system. Then in the Seventies he lurched to the Left and caused enough division in the Labour Party to lose us the next four elections. His idealism for pure Socialism was sweet music to his followers, but not to voters. It was when Tony Blair finally abandoned the old causes that the Labour Party became electable again.

There is a message here. Your core supporters are idealistic. But if you follow their advice, you will stay in the Opposition. When you lose, they want to double the propaganda with the hope that the people will listen. You can say you will nationalise everything, or promise to build a temple on the site of every mosque, but the voters are not going to vote for you. The winning strategy is to move to the middle and look after the real life concerns of the voters.

The other echo from the Sixties is Neville Maxwell, who cropped up in the news again. Normally, he is quoted for his disastrous prophecy in 1967 when he said that it would the last democratic election in India. But he is ignored about what he wrote on the India-China dispute at the time. His message was not palatable to Indian readers, but that did not mean he was wrong. Now he has leaked a report about the1962 war, but there is hardly any new information there. Everyone knows that Nehru miscalculated and ordered the Army to throw the Chinese out without making sure that the Army was properly equipped. Years of neglect of the defence forces extracted their price. Bravery is never enough; you need guns that fire and warm clothes that protect.

The issue between India and China about the borders goes to the heart of India’s nationhood. Whatever the ancient history of Bharatvarsha, its boundaries were not settled till the British marked them. This is why all of India’s boundaries have British names —- the Durand Line between Afghanistan and pre-Partition India, McMahon Line between Tibet and India, and then of course the Radcliffe Line between India and Pakistan. The Chinese have never accepted the lines drawn by the British and did not expect an independent post-colonial India to adopt them as its own. Nehru, however, was firm. India’s boundaries were those that the newly independent country had inherited. The Chinese believe they were imposed on China while it was weak and hence they are imperialist.

That being the nub of the issue, it is no good pretending it will ever be solved peaceably. Countries are jealous of their territorial boundaries . Post colonial nations are especially proud of their territorial integrity. In a country with many languages and religions, territory is often the only uniting principle. Just think of our national anthem — it describes the nation in terms of its geography.

The Government of India seems to have learnt no lessons from that episode. Our non-aligned allies then did not come to our rescue. Nor did the USSR. When push came to shove, it was the Americans we ran to. Now when Putin has annexed Crimea under the pretext of a rigged referendum, India has been far too eager (in my view) to support this international land-grab. If nothing else, India should beware that it does not give the Chinese ideas about grabbing Arunachal Pradesh, holding a fake referendum, and annexing it.
It is not unlikely. Read what Maxwell was saying about the India-China borders in the Sixties, or read what A G Noorani has been saying more recently. When borders are disputed, it is best to hold on to international law and protect your boundaries. When the Chinese come across the mountains, Russia will not come to India’s aid. And given the current spat with the US, they may think twice as well.

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