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General vision

Vo Nguyen Giap’s strength was his immersion in the real world

Vo Nguyen Giap’s strength was his immersion in the real world

Vo Nguyen Giap,the Vietnamese military commander,died on October 4 at the age of 102. When he visited India,I was asked to host him as part of the Planning Commission,and the general left quite an impression on me in the week we spent together. So much so that Vietnam is on the top of my list of places to visit.

Giap was a straightforward,soft-spoken man with great curiosity. About halfway through his visit,when we had become comfortable with each other,he told me a story that was important to him. The siege in Vietnam was almost over and the general knew that the enemy had no option but to surrender. He had slept fitfully in the weeks before. Confident of the outcome,he handed the reins over to his second-in-command and drove out into the countryside. He saw a light in a paddy field and walked towards it,telling the peasant there that he was hungry and tired. He got a meal of rice and fish,and ate and slept. He awoke to the radio announcing that Giap had won. I know,he said. I am Giap. Just like that,he had moved effortlessly into history.

He told me about their struggles. How,when he would go to a village with his comrades,they would carry a microscope and show the women the germs in the water. Then they’d boil it,and lo and behold,the germs would be gone. The practice of drinking water with a few tea leaves goes back to that. The few tea leaves are for show. The boiling was essential. Again,so simple and direct,no histrionics required.

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Like many Asian leaders,he admired India and its fight for independence. We have so much to learn from each other,he said. In Vietnam,the river valleys were doing well,but the hills were a problem. He would say that if this problem was not addressed,inequality would increase. I could already foresee the Vietnamese miracle economy. I also anticipated his own contribution in terms of a solid,scientific and technological base for the reforms under way. He held personal responsibility of policies for science and technology at the highest levels in his country.

As a young man in my first stint with the Planning Commission,P.N. Haksar,or Haksar saheb as he was known,was my boss. Those were heady days. I was immersed in agricultural data,since the mission of my division,the powerful perspective planning division,was self-reliance in food,in which we succeeded. Haksar saheb would call me at short notice from the computer centre when he had visitors. It would be rather embarrassing to meet well-shod,seasoned diplomats when I was in rolled-up shirt sleeves. But he was a pleasure to watch with Asian and African leaders,and they liked him too. What we now call practical rebalancing was then seen as a vision. I still maintain what I said then,which was that while a lot of growth would take place there,it would be unwise to ignore the US and German economies,as they were big and technologically advanced. Trade and technology need a vision,but they are matters of the head,not just the heart.

Leaders who were corporate czars obsessed with “data” would get Haksar saheb worked up. In economics,we have Cambridge,England,and Cambridge,Massachusetts. The former thinks in mathematics but obstinately persists in writing in plain English,without formulae. The latter doesn’t use English. Haksar saheb never used numbers in a conversation,and would give short shrift to those who were concerned only with detail.

These leaders from the east,like Giap,had great vision and yet were immersed in the real world. I was the minister accompanying the Chinese president,Jiang Zemin,when he visited India in 1996,and he startled the press at his farewell conference by saying that “your minister and I” had discussed the futility of the reconstruction debate and the idea of the end of history. General Giap could also move effortlessly from vision to reality and back.

The writer is chancellor,Central University of Gujarat

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