Diplomacy needs to go beyond hugs

SS DhawanUpdated: Thursday, May 30, 2019, 05:37 AM IST
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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) embraces Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg on June 2, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TASS Host Photo Agency / STR |

Mr Prime Minister, no one cuddles the way you do and now we are finding out you are good at holding hands, too. It must be very reassuring for the heads of state when you cradle them in your arms and gently squeeze their hands. And equally liberating, when you let go!

You obviously relish your place in the sun and would like the enduring moments to freeze in time. No wonder your hugs seem to go on and on and last forever; only the uncharitable will say that you tend to cling more than hug.

Though it must have been quite an effort trying to gather the overbearing Trump in your arms; and equally challenging trying to keep the bellies apart. Clearly, the American lacks practice. It was equally amusing to see recently the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron trying hard to wriggle out of your belly hug. These French have no manners, no etiquette!

But, Mr Prime Minister, it is time diplomacy went beyond hugs and holding of hands. Take, for instance, the strategic defence hug the US gave after President Barack Obama flew into your waiting arms at Palam airport. Nothing came out of it – least of all the promised cutting edge technology – except  that the US joins us in war games every now and then; also we get to play footsie in the South China Sea. The rest is business as usual — and that is the way the Americans want it. We are, however, still convinced that these are the strands of ”a new symphony in play”.

We also failed to board the NSG bus at Seoul because the US, our ‘strategic defence partner’, was not inclined to flag it off in Beijing.

Hopefully, Trump will be more forthcoming: but merely designating Kashmiri militant leader Syed Salahuddin as a global terrorist or taking a joint vow to combat radical Islamic terrorism will not take us very far. This is not the first time we are hearing of this ”convergence of views.”

Salahuddin and Hafiz Sayeed – supposedly under house arrest – are hardly hiding in the closet. Far from leading a cloistered life, Salahuddin, at least, moves around with gay abandon, resides at the best-known addresses, attends public rallies, where he gives inflammatory speeches, and hosts press conferences at the drop of a hat. The US has already overplayed its bounty card in Pakistan, thereby bolstering and emboldening the very menace it was seeking to undermine.

New Delhi must also remember that geopolitical and strategic considerations in Afghanistan are more relevant to the US than the thousand cuts that are being inflicted on India or truisms like 26/11, which tend to be just calendar events for the US.

Coming back to hugs, injudicious ones can also lead to much collateral damage; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had found that out much to his chagrin when he was taken in by the gushing Mandarin – Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai. So, Mr Prime Minister, to use a cricket analogy, you must not take the eye off the ball while hugging the enigmatic Chinese, because if you do, they may catch you in even a tighter embrace. This is important because the compulsive hugger often gets the better of you, even as geopolitics takes a backseat.

Also, please desist from making these proud assertions that our relations with China are stable and that not a bullet has been fired in the past 40 years. Because, without firing one, they have acquired a part of our usurped land in Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir and even built an economic corridor through it! Even while you were being hosted by Trump, China was upto its usual pyrotechnics in Sikkim.

Sure, anyone in your place would get caught up in the optics and swept away by his own boastful assertions. Such as: “The entire world is looking at Asia and more specifically at India.” The media, too, is effusive in its praise — “visionary, dynamic, out of box.” But, sir, atmospherics is no substitute for hard-nosed diplomacy.

It is also good to be smug and sure of one’s global reach, but one wishes you would not engage in doing the mundane preparatory groundwork – such jobs are best conducted by mandarins in the Ministry of External Affairs. Maybe the lesson in this is that there are limits to personal rapport, as often such diplomacy does not go beyond pageantry and ceremony.

Another novice is this Nawaz Sharif: completely lacking in grace and poise! A hug is supposed to loosen you up, bring down the walls. It is not about bodies colliding; he had clearly knocked the air out of you. Maybe, next time, it will make more sense to keep your hands tightly clenched in your pocket. I realise, Mr Prime Minister, that you have little patience with old-fashioned diplomacy. Rather, you prefer to plunge headlong into these hugs. But, Sir, sometimes it is desirable to gingerly take one step at a time. In geopolitics, the golden rule is: tip-toe, if you feel the urge to run! Especially when engaging with Pakistan!

PM Modi can wrap his arms around world leaders to his heart’s content, but there is nothing like a giant like Leonid Brezhnev or a Fidel Castro jumping on to you with a surprise hug.

Nam folklore has it that when both Castro and Indira Gandhi came face-to-face for the ceremonial exchange of a big wooden gavel, Castro acted coy. “Mrs Gandhi was taken aback but kept her poise. Castro again failed to hand over the gavel even as he kept smiling mysteriously. As a slightly embarrassed Gandhi proffered her hand hesitatingly a third time, the giant Castro pulled her to him and gave her a giant bear hug in full view of the hall, before parting with the gavel.”

That is the stuff world leaders are made of. Ironically, no one represented India at Castro’s funeral. Possibly, Mr Prime Minister, when you gave Obama the big bear hug, you got entwined in American apron strings.

Mr Prime Minister, you have given us our rightful place in the comity of nations and honestly, we have no problem with you gallivanting around the world and clocking international miles. Again, in all fairness, maybe we should stop making unflattering comparisons to Nehru; but perhaps a little bit of Nehru’s world view and Patel’s pragmatism at home would indeed help. The least you can do is to look a little less stiff at home and give some of us Indians a hug, too – at least once in a while.

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