Sucheta Dalal :Why the world has overreacted to Indo-Pak war fears
Sucheta Dalal

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Why the world has overreacted to Indo-Pak war fears  

June 10, 2002

With every passing day, the western world's paranoia about a possible Indo-Pak war with the use of nuclear weapons shows no sign of abating.

  • The Japanese are sending a special flight on Tuesday to evacuate their citizens from dangerous India.
  • The head of a foreign brokerage firm, an American citizen of Indian origin tells me how he and others in the financial market have received e-mail messages asking them to leave the country immediately.
  • The British government has packed off so many of its nationals that they no longer have consular staff to issue visas. (A friend points out that evacuating the high commissions in Chennai and Bangalore for a possible Indo-Pak conflagration in the North is like evacuating Italy for conflagration in Sweden. Actually the latter are closer than North and South of India, he says.)

All of us agree that this hysterical overreaction amounts to economic sanctions against India.

Maybe the political rhetoric emanating from India and Pakistan did warrant such warnings to foreign nationals in India. After all, India and Pakistan did not stop at playing war games; they freely used the N-word in their dialogue and threats.

Who struck first and who retaliated would be immaterial in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

Why then are we protesting when the world took us seriously? Why are we blaming the international media and the US ambassador for whipping up fake fears? And why are we so surprised at the impact on business?

It is because we worked out the cost of war, but failed to anticipate that the threat of war too had consequences in a liberalized economy that invited global investment in every area of business.

In fact, nobody discussed the impact of war beyond worrying about the collapse of stock prices and the cost to the exchequer.

Ironically enough, the stock markets have behaved with a great degree of maturity. Although the markets are nervous and volatile, they have held up reasonably well in the circumstances.

It is industry that has failed us, as did its support networks around the world. The Confederation of Indian Industry, which is the main voice of Indian business, has finally responded to the situation over the weekend. Its strongly worded press statement, issued just a couple of days ago, is much too late.

And because the CII failed to wake up in time, its international connections failed too. The US-based Asia Society, the World Economic Forum, the many international think tanks, policy research institutes and other groups that network with the CII have all remained silent.

In fact, CII's belated response seems to have emanated out of the realisation that international travel advisories and warnings are not only affecting the capital market and the travel trade, but all Indian business.

But let us not blame the CII alone. Since 1999-2000, the National Association of Software and Services Companies has taken the lead in interacting with world leaders in information technology - these are a slew of billionaire businessmen who wield considerable influence over US Congressmen and senators.

The Indus Entrepreneurs have often sounded more patriotic than us desis during their frequent visits to India to address conferences or pose for page three pictures - almost all of them are American citizens.

India could have cashed in on their emotional 'ties' with the homeland to tone down the advisories.

For instance, the UK advisories warned about armed robberies in Mumbai, bomb explosions and petty crime in Delhi, violent crime in Bihar and Gujarat and mine explosions in Andhra Pradesh.

Surely, one should have had enough influence to eliminate such gross exaggerations. India is in fact a lot safer than many low-income ghettos in Europe, America and the former USSR.

A friend who had the ambitious plan of follow the silk route by car was told to abandon the idea because he would be robbed and stripped off his belongings within 30 miles of Tashkent.

A French film producer married to a Gujarati, marveled at how safe India was relative to the enormous disparity in income and lifestyles. You could walk through Dharavi (Asia's largest slum) or drive through the most backward parts of India (probably barring one state) without the fear of being mugged and robbed, he said. Why is this not conveyed to the rest of the world?

Why do Gujarat and Kashmir alone hit international headlines? Clearly, it is because our government information machinery simply does not work.

Indian bureaucrats and staff from the Press Information Bureau, and others who hold communications portfolios are almost uniformly pompous, arrogant and boorish.

Rather than communicate with the media, they prefer to "control" it with their ability to dole out junkets (foreign delegations) or by threatening exclusion from important official briefings.

Most often, they refuse to recognize/acknowledge any journalist who does not flaunt close connections or is outside Delhi.

That brings us back to the failure of business and industry. After 45 years of a license-permit-raj, Indian industry too is unaware of the hidden risks of an open economy and increased reliance on private and foreign investment.

Just as industrialists remained silent about Gujarat and failed to recognise its long-term consequences to business - they failed to understand the price that business would pay for political brinkmanship, careless rhetoric and misguided adventurism.

Just as Gujarat was not merely a communal issue, Kashmir too is not merely a political issue. Solving the Kashmir problem will need much more than a superbly articulate minister of state in-charge of the external affairs portfolio.

The question is, how does one convince the world that we are more than just one half of two dangerous squabbling kids, who need to be forcibly separated through political intervention?

Why was the "strong India caucus" ineffective when we needed it most? Why does the world see us in exactly the same light at Pakistan and does not believe that we are victims of terrorism?

We asked someone in the US (who wants to remain anonymous) who is in the thick of efforts to forge stronger ties between India and the US. He agrees that the two million strong Indian community did precious little to push India's case except at individual levels.

According to him it is "yet another example of 'photo-op' political posturing --- and no real political empowerment."

Worse still, he says, "In contrast to the Indian Americans, the Pakistani, Pakistani American and Khalistani lobbies have worked with zeal."

Well, in that case, we can only tell CII, Nasscom, Ficci and all those chambers of commerce that lobbying is not about holding endless conferences at five-star venues presided over by the prime minister (present and future) and their respective council of ministers.

They have to wake up to the new reality and requirements of international business and work harder at it. They need to learn from the experience and start working at building India's image on several fronts.

Threats of war, as well as corruption, poor development and political horse-trading (of the kind happening in Maharashtra) all affect business sentiment.


-- Sucheta Dalal