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Understanding neighbours & friends

  By Vijay Darda | 07-06-2016

I have met and interacted with Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit on several occasions and can take the liberty of calling him a friend. He is a professional diplomat – warm knowledgeable, friendly yet firm and persuasive. It was at a dinner for the visiting delegates of the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) that I mooted the idea of his coming to Nagpur for our Lokmat Knowledge Forum event. Basitsaab readily agreed but was very cautious about making a firm promise, as his travel programmes depend on clearances from the government of India. But he was keen to make the visit.

By sheer coincidence, the timing of his visit to Nagpur clashed with my visit to Morocco and Tunisia as a part of the Indian delegation that accompanied vice-president Hamid Ansari on a five-day tour to these North African countries. So, I could not be present when he visited Nagpur, but then even from that distance I was keeping a keen eye (modern communications do facilitate such activity) and was getting updated regularly.

By all accounts, Basitsaab’s visit to Nagpur and his interaction with the select audience at the Lokmat Knowledge Forum was a success. Everyone appreciated the diverse viewpoints that were expressed by Basitsaab, and the Indian participants – senior diplomat and ex-Ambassador Vivek Katju, BJP’s foreign affairs wing chief Seshadri Chari, AICC spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, senior journalist Jatin Desai and the manner in which the entire discussion was coordinated by our National Editor Harish Gupta.

I am fully aware of the complexities of the India-Pakistan relationship and the nature of our disputes. It is a fact that given the history of conflict that prevails between us neighbours there are no easy solutions. But High Commissioner Basit’s message of peace being the main mission of diplomacy in spires hope. His quest to change the narrative of the India-Pakistan ( five steps forward, ten steps backward) relations is as laudable, as his assertion that ‘sky is the limit’ when we neighbours get down to the business of setting things right. After all, we have a millennia of shared civilizational values and cultural ethos between us and the only question that haunts us all across both sides of the borders is when will India-Pakistan be just good neighbours? 

As separate sovereign countries, they can pursue their own national interests, but they do not have to be at loggerheads all the time. In essence, they need not be friends- but is an expectation that they behave as decent neighbours too lofty? I believe that both prime minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif have the will and commitment to change the narrative, and hurdles notwithstanding there would be some forward movement. But in the meanwhile, I also look forward to the improvements that can happen without the larger Delhi-Islamabad structured dialogue as Basitsaab enlightened us all in his candid and balanced address that afternoon.

Trip to Morocco, Tunisia

In a globalized world, we cannot live in isolation, and we must interact with our friends in distant lands. The five-day tour of Morocco and Tunisia by an Indian delegation led by vice-president Hamid Ansari was also one such friendly expedition. It was a meeting of two civilisations – Maghreb and Mashriq – West and East. Morocco an Islamic country is known as the Kingdom of West in North Africa is one of the oldest civilisations and just one nugget that it was the first country to recognise an independent United States of America in 1777 would establish its historic significance. But then it also has a history of colonial domination, and a struggle for freedom that was inspired by our own apostle of peace and non-violence Mahatma Gandhi. 

It has a unique system of governance, in that it has a constitutional monarchy and an elected parliament. Its current king Mohammed VI is a modernizer who has introduced economic and social liberalization and even after the Arab Spring protests, he won a landslide victory in a referendum on a reformed constitution he had proposed to placate the protesters. It is mark of the warmth of the India-Morocco relationship that even though he was not present in the country, when the Indian delegation came calling, his palace and the entire royal retinue was at hand to offer all the royal hospitality.

It was while addressing the Mohammad V University at Rabat that vice-president Ansari spoke of the contribution of non-Arab Muslims in strengthening the Islamic faith and said that in modern times the ‘the challenge is to accept diversity as an existential reality and to configure attitudes and methodologies for dealing with it. In developing such an approach, the traditional virtue of tolerance is desirable, but insufficient, our effort, thinking and practices have to look beyond it and seek acceptance of diversity and adopt it as a civic virtue.” The fact that the people in Morocco do not find anything extraordinary between their adherence to Islamic faith, and their fascination for the Bollywood stars and films symbolises their acceptance of diversity. They do not see any clash between modernity and Islamic faith. Incidentally, the same view was expressed by Basitsaab when he spoke at Nagpur about Pakistan. It is my strong belief that if the threat of terrorism has to be countered across the globe, then this is one of the ways of going forward.

Tunisia is the northern most Islamic country in Africa and borders Libya and Algeria. It is the first democracy after the Arab spring and is one up on us in the matter of representation of women in their elected parliament. It has been ranging between 24 and 31 per cent since 2011. It also has the most liberal laws in terms of gender equality in the entire Muslim world.

We have excellent trade and political relations with both Morocco and Tunisia and the import of phosphates for our agricultural needs represents the mainstay of our business. But now companies like Tata, Mahindra and Dabur have started taking interest in the region that also offers good opportunities for the Indian doctors and pharma companies in the healthcare sector. Of course, both the countries also wish to cooperate with us in the IT sector. Politically, the people remember the days when Muammar Gadhafi ruled neighbouring Libya and prime minister Indira Gandhi had a close relationship with this Tunisian neighbour. But the best part of travelling to these places is the unveiling of the persona of our vice-president Hamid Ansari and his graceful and impressive wife Salma as persuasive speakers and knowledgeable travel companions.

Before I conclude…

The resignation of Maharashtra minister Eknath Khadse is an important political development for the state. It marks an acceptance by the BJP leadership that its ministers too can be corrupt, and this is a major step for a party that has come to power on the anticorruption plank. Now zero tolerance for corruption, does not mean that corruption has been eradicated from the system and Khadse episode is just one symbol of the malaise. The rot obviously runs deeper.


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Understanding neighbours & friends


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