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Fiddling while the country burns

April 26, 2010 18:36 IST

Three issues should be dominating media coverage in India: China's imperial ambitions, Pakistan's increasing closeness to the US and its crucial role in Afghanistan and the Naxal insurgency, not the IPL controversies, writes Rajeev Srinivasan.

A juicy controversy over cricket and the Indian Premier League continues unabated in the Indian media. Acres of newsprint and oceans of ink are being wasted by allegedly muck-raking journalists pursuing the Byzantine dealings of various involved parties, and accusations and counter-accusations are flung about with abandon. I am reminded of Nero, and of the spectacles in the Coliseum while the barbarians were already at the gates, and Rome was on its path to precipitous collapse.

In India they play cricket rather than gladiatorial sports. More serious issues have vanished completely from the public consciousness: 'Manufacturing consent' as lamented by Noam Chomsky is now more applicable to the Indian media-babu-neta circus than the American military-industrial-media complex.

To name just a few issues that nobody is bothered by:

  • The continuing occupation of large amounts of land by communist terrorists who are clear about their intention of overthrowing the Indian government; and their chutzpah in attacking and wiping out a platoon of paramilitary police
  • The massive and rapid arms buildup by China -- especially its new focus on a blue-water, long-range navy to project power from the Straits of Malacca to the Straits of Hormuz -- basically a cordon sanitaire around India
  • The revival of the fortunes of the Pakistani Army, seen most evidently in the strutting about of General Ashfaq Kayani after he was embraced by President Barack Obama, and in the recent Pakistani war-game which is a direct threat to defeat India in a conventional engagement

In a sense, cricket is playing its assigned role as the opiate of the masses. The media plays a major role as facilitator. Anybody who has watched a discussion on Indian television cannot help being impressed by the vacuity of the talking heads. Lung-power generally wins.

The arms build-up by China has reached alarming proportions. There was a startling story in the New York Times on April 23 about how the Americans -- pre-eminent military superpower that they are -- are getting seriously worried about the growth and reach of Chinese naval power.

No longer content with their former defensive posture regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea, the Chinese are now interpreting their interests broadly -- they claim that the entire route for oil that they import (thus the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean) as well as the Western Pacific are their natural zones of influence -- a sort of Monroe Doctrine (whereby the Americans once defined South America as their imperial backyard where they would never allow any other power much influence).

A couple of years ago the conventional wisdom was that, despite the fact that Chinese power on land has become increasingly evident, there was some room for complacency because, after all, India had a more powerful blue-water navy which could project power far afield. Much has been made of an aircraft carrier group in the Indian Navy's fleet -- although that should really count for a 'virtual' carrier given the aging and now mothballed Vikrant, the controversial and also aged Admiral Gorshkov (not yet commissioned) and the far-off-in-the-future carrier being built in India.

The thought was that India had an advantage at sea. It is now increasingly clear that this is not so. The Chinese have set up a massive submarine base at Halong Bay, Hainan, which threatens the South China Sea and also the Indian Ocean; they have set up tactical facilities at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Baluchistan, and in the Cocos Islands in Burma. In the meantime, India has dithered in its naval procurement: a former navy chief complained bitterly about the lack of funds.

For some strange reason, there is a certain bizarre behaviour on the part of India as regards China. Whenever the Chinese assert themselves the Indians act like some vassal of an imperial court, bowing and scraping with the best of them. This was on display recently when the Indian foreign minister went to Beijing, kowtowed away at the imperial court, and -- this is the hilarious part -- asked for their help in bringing Pakistan to heel on terrorism! For good measure, he asked for China's support in India's quixotic quest for the Security Council seat!

This must have led to peals of laughter in the Forbidden City: China is Pakistan's main sponsor -- otherwise ask why there is no terrorism in Uighur-majority Xinjiang even though technically the ISI should be as concerned about Uighurs as they are about Kashmiris based on the theory of the universal Ummah. And China's answer for the Security Council? When hell freezes over!

Add to this the spectacle of Americans making eyes at the ISI during the recent trip by the latest caudillo, General Kayani, there. President Obama declared that he simply loved Pakistan based on his visit there when he was a student, and the old friends (roommates?) from that country.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, promptly added insult to injury by lecturing Manmohan Singh about an arms-race in the so-called 'South Asia' -- ironically started by American ally Pakistan and sustained by American ally China supplying Pakistan with both covert proliferation and diplomatic cover. Clearly, re-hyphenation is complete in the usual manner of Democrats.

The Indian media came up with encomia about the alleged US bonhomie with India, but that was a load of tripe. One only had to read the official remit of the 'bilats' as published by the White House to see that there was a vast gulf between the American attitudes to the India and Pakistan: India counts for nothing. It is eye-opening to contrast these to the huzzahs in the Indian media.

The end-game in Afghanistan is upon us, and it is clear which way the wind is blowing. Even Hamid Karzai, the hand-picked American ally, is showing sings of testiness at the near-certainty that the Americans are going to cut and run, leaving the ISI and friends in charge. As a bonus, the Pakistanis are demanding that India must simply exit Afghanistan. And, oh, by the way, Kashmir as well.

India has no response to this. Instead, India suffers the ignominy of being completely ignored in discussions about Afghanistan, and the blood and treasure it has expended in humanitarian activities there, as well as the legitimate security and commercial interests India has there, are simply negated by all concerned.

But, to quote Mad magazine, "What, me worry?" The lineal descendants of Marie Antoinette are telling Indians, "Let them play cricket instead".

Rajeev Srinivasan