Byline by MJ Akbar: Yo, Singh!
Ever since the G-8 summit at St. Petersburg in Russia in late July, I have had a recurring nightmare. This summit will surely go down in history as the Open Microphone Extravaganza. We learnt how precisely President George Bush talks to his friends and fellow leaders when an open microphone conveyed his conversation to the world. He was on neither a protocol nor a grammar leash. He addressed Tony Blair, surely his best international ally and certainly his most obedient poodle, thus: "Yo, Blair!"
Normally, friends tend to be on first-name terms in private and often in public. Bush, in a sign of unconscious superpower superiority, sticks to the surname. "Yo!" is New York street diction, always one syllable short of respectful. But there it was, loud and clear: "Yo, Blair!" It was a summons. Tony Blair obediently cringed, washed his hands with dry air, and talked to "George". A little later Blair asked "George" whether he could go to the Middle East. George chattily told "Yo Blair" not to bother; Condi (the well known nickname of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice) is going, and that should be good enough for a mere Prime Minister of Britain. Blair was suitably obsequious. Bush was at his cheesy best with the microphone live. He told anyone who was listening (unfortunately, the whole world) that Russia was a big country (Gosh!) and at one point, in the friendliest way possible, with no malice whatsoever, used a four-letter word, making life easy for cartoonists for at least one day. It is only fair to report that Bush did not massage anyone’s neck at St. Petersburg. He did that when he stopped in Germany to meet Angela Merkel on his way to the summit. The staid German Chancellor, caught by surprise, looked horrified in the subsequent pictures. We are not privy to her private comments, but Bush seemed very pleased with himself.
India was rising when I was awake, but had risen in my nightmare and had displaced Canada to become a full member of G-8. Washington ignored the Canadian threat to walk out of the North American Free Trade Area, and welcomed Dr Manmohan Singh’s India. This G-8 summit was held at Agra. Dr Manmohan Singh was now Bush’s best buddy rather than Blair, who had disappeared from the picture. Dr Singh, as ever his meek and humble self, was sitting in a corner, a happy smile lighting up his visage. All the microphones were alive. Indian journalists sat in row after endless row in the hall, clutching immobile pads, pens and tape recorders. They had no questions, for they were even happier with Bush than their Prime Minister. The only journalist to ask questions was a teenage reporter from a television channel, who asked three rapid-fire questions and turned to her cameraman to check whether they had enough sound bites for the single minute that had been allotted to non-criminal news on their top-rated television news show. The cameraman nodded in the affirmative. She turned back to Bush and asked if he could please identify himself, and explained with a full sense of responsibility, that she did not want to make any mistakes. Bush grinned, looked back into the half-visible corner, and shouted, "Yo, Singh!" Dr Manmohan Singh shuffled up, washing his hands with dry air, and said in a soft small voice, "George, do you think I could go to Iran?"
"Yo, Singh!" replied Bush, slapping the Indian Prime Minister’s back hard enough to make the latter wince. "India is a big country." Dr Singh smiled profusely at the compliment. "India has nine time zones," said Bush, as he got up to massage the Indian Prime Minister’s shoulders, adding a neck-rub in honour of the special relationship. "I am going back to America tonight, Singh! Gotta sleep in my own bedroom, ya know. Afraid I can’t go to see that old tomb with a baseball cap that you wanted to take me to in the moonlight. Your old Mughal kings made love in tombs, did they? Strange people. We don’t have kings in America! What do you want to go to Iran for? Condi is going. Anything you want to know about Iran or Pakistan, just give her a call. She’s good, Condi. Asks all the right questions." He then gave the sweetest of grins to Condi, and my nightmare ended in streaming sweat.
Thank God it was only a bad dream. Thank God it’s all untrue. Dr Manmohan Singh would never behave like this; never. He is India’s Prime Minister, not Britain’s! If he wants to go to Iran, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, he will tell Air India to keep two jumbo jets ready and off he will go. He will never make India’s foreign policy congruent to Washington’s foreign policy, or, worse, the US Congress’ domestic policy. He will never cap India’s fissile material production just because the White House or the Democrats, willing advocates of the non-proliferation treaty lobby, want him to do so. He will never waste forty or fifty billion dollars in nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes just because Republicans want for their nuclear industry customers with more money than sense. Dr Manmohan Singh sits in a chair once occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He will never bargain away India’s nuclear defence interests. That was a stupid nightmare. It is daylight now, and the coffee he likes is an excellent brew from South India. There is no way India’s foreign policy is going to be outsourced to legislators on a hill in Washington.
George Bush seems, by the evidence from St. Petersburg, to have slipped into some twilight zone where the real world has been replaced by a portrait painted by self-serving sycophants. What else can explain his comments on the war in Lebanon, heard through that deadly open microphone? (Just a thought, which you should dismiss: did the steely Vladimir Putin’s steely intelligence operatives deliberately keep a microphone alive? After all, there is no condemnation quite like self-condemnation.)
Live microphones have trapped American Presidents before. When Jimmy Carter was in Delhi a generation ago, and Morarji Desai was Prime Minister, he told us precisely what he thought of India’s ambitions. Mrs Indira Gandhi certainly did not need any reminding. Then there was the classic instance of Ronald Reagan threatening to bomb the evil empire when he thought only his pals were listening. The muscle in Reagan’s policies was persuasive enough to unravel the Soviet Union.
But Bush exposed himself as clueless of the complexities that determine war and non-war (there never has been any peace) in the volatile Middle East. At the very least Bush might want to read the Stratfor report (posted on 25 July and available very easily on the web) on the current war in Lebanon. It has not been written by Mullah Longbeard but by George Friedman. I do not know George Friedman, or his ethnicity, but I could give long odds that he has no beard at all. Bush policy in the Middle East has all the forethought of a knee-jerk. It used to be "I know best." That has been replaced by "I know all."
There are people in Washington who see and think, and can detect reality in the cocoon or when it emerges from the shadows of an embryo. Condoleezza Rice is among them, according to those who know anything about her. But it is hard to conduct rational policy when it is constant headbutting irrational conviction. An analysis of the Lebanon war will have to await, at the very least, more than the length of another column. But even a few sentences are sufficient to convey that this, Israel’s longest modern war, will not reach a ceasefire that brings much satisfaction to Israel for the very good reason that Hezbollah will be stronger at the end of the fighting than it was at the beginning. The depletion in its ranks will be more than compensated by new recruits; its arms replenished, and its ability lauded. At least one section of Washington now wants to engage Syria again in Lebanon. This is implicit recognition of what anyone could have predicted, that the vacuum left by the departure of the Syrian Army from Lebanon was not going to be filled by the Lebanese Army.
Dr Manmohan Singh used the correct phrase when he informed Parliament that India was sending Rs 10 crores for Lebanese rehabilitation. He called the region India’s extended neighbourhood. When there is conflagration in the neighbourhood, the last thing to do is make your foreign policy congruent with the whims of an administration that cannot distinguish between a fire extinguisher and firecracker.