Paradox of appearances

Thinking Aloud


Indians will have no difficulty understanding Thailand’s decision to shift next month’s Asian summit from Phuket to spare delegates the gruesome sight of devotees piercing their bodies with skewers during the island’s annual religious festival. The move typifies Third World concern with how others see us.

Such face-saving exercises can sometimes have comic results as when the Mayor of Colombo’s mother was hauled to jail while collecting driftwood on the eve of the 1976 Non-aligned nations summit. The police took her for a vagrant. Delhi, whose streets are similarly being cleansed of beggars in preparation for next year’s Commonwealth Games, has avoided such blunders. But the campaign’s authors may not realise that window-dressing can be counter-productive. If the capital is too spick and span, India may not seem a deserving candidate for the world’s helping hand.

Not that we get much. Condoleeza Rice slashed American aid by 35 per cent to a mere $81 million, arguing that India is a ‘transforming’ nation, unlike Pakistan and Bangladesh which are still ‘developing’. The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme even helps 156 other countries while India sends Chandrayaan into space, builds up a blue water navy and develops a nuclear arsenal. Despite Mother Teresa and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the world’s richest men — once the Nizam of Hyderabad, now Laskshmi Mittal — are Indian. The character in a thriller by Ted Allbeury who defined aid as “poor people in rich countries giving money to rich people in poor countries” might have had India in mind.

Quite, say uncharitable Britons who begrudge the measly £825 million promised over three years. India “has more billionaires and millionaires than Britain” according to Dennis MacShane, who was a junior foreign office minister in Tony Blair’s government. So, why should British taxpayers make any sacrifice?

It’s an understandable objection for Britain is in deep trouble. With 2.4 million people without jobs, unemployment is at a 14-year high, partly explaining the surge in drug addiction, alcoholism and domestic violence. A spurt of what looks suspiciously like race friction and increased support for the ultra-nationalist British National Party are attributed to the same cause. The IMF and the Bank of England governor expect conditions to worsen, and William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, laments that Britain, which once ruled the waves, will never again be a force in world affairs.

A bribe

The resentment bubbles in internet postings. India’s economy is 50 times bigger than Britain’s, says a blogger, stressing MacShane’s point about rich Indians. Another’s plea that millions of Indians are mired in poverty provoked the retort “If India is so poor, why are they buying aircraft carriers?” (This is a sore point for the Royal Navy is forced to reconsider its own plan for two aircraft carriers). The answer is even more scathing. “Well, after they’ve paid for their military and space programmes, there’s very little left for food. Hardly their fault is it, you fascist, racist, holocaust denier!” British aid, the writer explained, is “a bribe to stop them hating us”.

Singapore’s astute Lee Kuan Yew may have had a point when he mused that Third World politicians should “set out to impress the world that they were poor and in dire need of assistance”. That means Delhi should look like Kolkata. Watching Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s flamboyant arrival for a Commonwealth summit in Canada, Lee reflected that “the poorer the country, the bigger the Cadillacs they hired for their leaders”. Mujib’s chartered plane idled on the runway for a week while his entourage loaded it with crates of purchases.

Nawaz Sharif was even more extravagant when paying what Pakistani newspapers called a ‘begging bowl’ visit to Bill Clinton. Sharif took eight officials and 20 journalists in a PIA airbus that cost $2,10,000 a day. Forty limousines were hired in Washington. The 10-day jaunt was said to have cost $2.5 million.

The comparative modesty of our leaders owes nothing to Lee’s cynical calculation. But Indians are no less concerned with appearances. As the Delhi operation confirms, authority is not interested in finding out why 60,000 people beg for a living in the capital’s streets. Nor in doing something to improve their plight. All that matters is brushing the nuisance under the carpet so that foreigners aren’t pestered.

It’s like Chiang Kai-shek trying to impress Americans by outlawing spitting in 1934. Mao Zedong tried even more energetically to force the Chinese into a modern (read Western) straitjacket. Then, with 500 days to go before the Beijing Olympics, all ‘uncivilised’ habits like spitting, shaving heads, begging, littering, queue-jumping and swearing were banned as “not compatible with the nation’s economic strength and growing international status”.

China may not have been as worried if the Olympics were only for Asians and Africans. Similarly, India might have been less pernickety about Delhi’s streets if the Commonwealth didn’t include Britiain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But keeping up with the white Joneses is not the real problem. The concentration on appearances while neglecting the underlying causes is. No country is richer than its poorest citizen. It stands to reason that the Third World will never match the First only through cosmetic exercises.

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