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Dialogue without Destination

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

For two and a half years they talked and it seems it made no difference finally.  Sure, friendship between the two principal interlocutors was strengthened and many good meals were shared in fine restaurants around the world.  This talk did not come cheap, if one were only to add up the frequent flier miles, the long hours and the tiring discussions that left everyone where they started: in nether land.  In another sense the dialogue was “cheap” in that there were no concessions made on either side and no one got hurt or pushed around.  May be that was the success of the dialogue.  May be.  The author of the book that has managed to create a wee little buzz in these times of terrorist threats and Iraqi invasion concedes that his partner in the dialogue may have won, though what he won is not clear and as I will argue, he did not win anything.  Except that a US President did visit India after threatening he would not and that the President also visited Pakistan on the same trip to South Asia, to save face, as some said, but which was mostly a silly exercise in diplomatic image maintenance.

That the famous talks meandered and did not produce anything is acknowledged by Talbott in an interview, where he says: “Essentially, our problem was that we had one assigned topic on which our positions were, if not diametrically opposed, then at least profoundly opposed. If we had simply traded talking points with each other we could have limited the famous dialogue to one short round and we could have then just exchanged papers. It was really a question of whether not just two brains, but two teams of brains, could transcend the core disagreement that had brought us together to begin with”.

Because of this, even in the Indian-American community, the book has not gained much attention/traction.  That is a little unfortunate for it details in “whodunit” fashion, the discussions between Talbott, the deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration and Jaswant Singh, the external affairs minister in the Vajpayee-led NDA government.  It is indeed a fascinating read.  Told in good news reporting /analysis fashion, by a man who worked for TIME magazine, the book is a good addition to Indian diplomatic lore.  That it is told by someone who knows how to cut through the dense shrubbery of diplomatic discourse makes this book a keeper.  To those of us who follow the meanderings of the Indo-American diplomatic business, it gives some insight into the then much speculated about discussions.  But the book and the dialogues that they are based on are as fluffy and insubstantial as a head of ice berg lettuce – all bulk and little “meat” (to mix a metaphor!).  By the end of the 236 pages you realize that neither interlocutor learnt much about the other’s culture, needs and desires.   What Jaswant Singh won was not to “give in” to the Americans and what Strobe Talbott lost was the chance to get to know India beyond the packaged material of the “secular syndicate”.

As mesmerized as we are while thumbing through the pages of this attractive tome by the end’s arrival we are left as uneasy, tired and lethargic as the principal interlocutors were and as lethargic and directionless as the “official” Indo-American partnership is.  For those who expected that the Singh-Talbott talks would take Indian-American relationship to a different and higher level, let me tell you this: nothing will change in the Indo-American relationship in the foreseeable future, whether it is a Republican President at the helm or a Democratic one.  India and Indians may get hectored more by the Democrats about nuclear proliferation, communal conflict, Kashmir and outsourcing, but the Republicans will quietly undermine Indian interests in ways that may be publicly less hostile but which are substantially quite problematic.

True to the Democrats’ character, Talbott was focused less on what Singh was telling him about the Indian context and about Indian history as much as he was on extracting promises and action on non-proliferation, disarmament and cooling the “most dangerous hotspot in the world -- Kashmir”.   Talbott was dismissive about Singh’s version of history and I suppose we cannot blame him for it.  After all, it seems that the only people he met with in India and those he knows here in the US, had no BJP connections.  Thus, the most urgent and important message that Singh was trying to convey – the threat from Muslim fundamentalists across the border and the way that fundamentalism fed into and stoked the communal divide in India, was brushed aside by Talbott as a “Hindu nationalist” fear.  Talbott cannot comprehend how his suave and Westernized friend could be mouthing what for Talbott and the secularists in India is so evident: the terrible nature of the Hindu nationalist movement.  “Give me a break, Jaswant, you really cannot be serious about your party’s Hindu nationalist platform”, seems to be the fundamental premise on which Talbott was operating.

Is it Talbott’s fault therefore that he sees India divorced from its historical struggles, or is it the fault of Singh that he could not convince his interlocutor about his version of Indian history, culture and fears?  The perceptual chasm that was not bridged by this diplomatic exercise is a natural consequence of the listlessness of the discussions.   It is all fine and dandy to write a book and make a movie about “two friends discussing existentialism over many dinners and even many more drinks” but it does not push two countries closer together. 

What more could Jaswant Singh have done to open up the intellectual and cultural spaces in India that would have enabled his American interlocutor to get a better grasp of India?  It is interesting to note that other than the mention of Vajpayee and Yashwant Sinha, there are no other BJP/Hindu nationalist actors that get serious mention in the book.   Advani is dismissed in one paragraph as a hard line Hindu nationalist who broached the subject of a South Asian confederation.  Talbott is aghast that this “Hindu nationalist” could not perceive how such a confederation would be seen as a threat by Pakistan.  Voila, in one sentence, an interesting possibility and a past historical reality is dismissed by the American diplomat who seems unable or unwilling to give credence to this hope.  But a lot of ink is spent on Narendra Modi, on the Gujarat riots and the RSS brand of Hindutva, including the “attacks on Christians by Hindu nationalists”.  As such, Jaswant Singh is merely the Westernized face of a Hindu party trying to sell a contaminated version of India.

No intellectual or media person who could also help Talbott learn more about Hinduism, Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist concerns is either introduced to Talbott, or if indeed he did meet any of them, find mention in the book.  Instead we have the usual “secular” establishment folks, from the likes of a Malavika Singh (publisher of “Seminar” magazine) to a Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express whom Talbott relies on to understand modern Indian political and cultural dynamics.   Even more revealing are the people that Talbott acknowledges for helping him write the book – people like M. J. Akbar, Sunil Khilnani, Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor.  This highlights the intellectual divide in India and about who gets to confabulate with whom and for what purpose.  If indeed the evaluation and understanding of the BJP and Indian history is based on the interactions with only people like the above, then Jaswant Singh had little chance of convincing his interlocutor about the nature and culture of the political party he belonged to.  The BJP was seen through the eyes of only the “secular/Congress” friends of Talbott.  He knew no one or cared to know anyone from the BJP/Hindutva or non-Congress ranks – not an Arun Shourie, a Balbir Punj or an Arun Jaitley, nor academics like Makarand Pranjape or a Kapil Kapoor, nor media people like M. V. Kamath or a Chandan Mitra.  Or may be, as the RSS complains, it was Jaswant Singh’s fault.  Having talked to an RSS functionary, I get the sense that they were underwhelmed by Jaswant Singh’s diplomatic exercise and they are not happy with the Talbott book.  Singh, it seems, wanted to be the only face of the BJP to interact with Talbott.

That apart and despite the wispy nature of the book and official Indo-American relations, anyone interested in where the relationship should go or how to guide it should read this book.  I believe, as a person who teaches intercultural communication, that we can learn more from failure than from success.  The book is also a fascinating American account of the discussions with a worthy Indian interlocutor.  To complement it and to complete it, we should be hearing from Jaswant Singh.

Originally published on December 01, 2004.

 
     
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