(This column was published in DNA edition dated May 12, 2010.)
It isn’t easy to summon up an eloquent defence of Jairam Ramesh, the latest in a long line of ministers to be afflicted with an acute case of foot-in-mouth-itis. His public criticism of two other ministries in the government of which he is a part – over restrictions on Chinese equipments in the Indian telecom sector on grounds of national security – violates established norms of propriety in governance. If he’s been summoned to the professorial prime minister Manmohan Singh’s chambers and rapped on the knuckles for mis-speaking on issues beyond his ministerial ambit, it’s fair to say he deserved it.
On the other hand, it isn’t difficult to trace and even defend the intellectual source of Jairam Ramesh’s articulations that have landed him in this controversy. The man who is credited with coining the portmanteau word ‘Chindia’ – to refer to the modern-day rise of civilisational twins China and India – has long been banging the drum for enhanced economic cooperation between the two countries.
In fact, this isn’t even the first time that Jairam has spoken out against Indian security paranoia over Chinese investments and a “schizophrenic” Indian mindset when it comes to full-fledged economic ties with China. In his 2005 book Making Sense of Chindia, he addresses it several times and makes a coherent case for mature economic diplomacy without “demonising” China or “romanticising” ancient civilisational links.
It is possible to argue, of course, that the ‘Chindia’ bee that buzzes in Jairam Ramesh’s bonnet represents an oversimplification of the complex Sino-Indian relationship. Enhanced economic cooperation, as reflected in galloping bilateral trade, has not automatically translated into better political relations; in fact, given the skewed profile of bilateral trade and China’s admittedly mercantilist policies, even trade relations have come under strain.
But it is also true that India has acquired notoriety on the world trade platform for its wilful and excessive invocation of anti-dumping duties and non-tariff barriers to mask protectionist trade policies. National security interests do, of course, override trade considerations; nevertheless, India’s opaque record on this front inhibits a wider appreciation of the legitimacy of its claims – and opens it up to criticism about “paranoia” in the security establishment.
At another level, the commentary stirred up by the latest controversy shows up a disquieting shrinking of the ‘middle ground’ in the public rhetoric, particularly when it comes to perceptions of public security vis-a-vis China. It also reflects a failure of official India to give voice to a confident, coherent outlining of our ‘core national interests’ around which a stable relationship with China can be build.
The latest “security hurdle” to sourcing Chinese telecom equipment can be traced to objections from the Intelligence Bureau; given the agency’s undistinguished record in credible intelligence gathering down the years, and its particularly dubious role in the lead-up to the 1962 war with China, it may be unwise to formulate policy on so significant a relationship without additional field intelligence
One other aspect of this episode is puzzling: why did an intelligent, articulate man like Jairam Ramesh, who obviously knows the limits of his ministerial brief, overreach and position himself so squarely – and fancifully – as the centrepiece of enhanced ‘Chindia’ relations? Does he hanker for a bigger role for himself beyond serving as environment minister? The answer may lie in an interview he gave to a weekly magazine in 1998, in which he said: “Why wouldn’t I like to be Prime Minister? Maybe 10 years down the line.” Twelve years have since gone by; perhaps Jairam Ramesh is feeling restless.