HISTORY IS A TOUGH BEAST. It expects an idea or initiative to travel some distance before allotting the adjective ‘historic’. The G20 summit in Delhi has been a diplomatic coup but it will require time before we know whether the paragraph in the joint communiqué on Ukraine leads to a frozen ceasefire, which is the best the world can hope for in current circumstances. The African Union, welcomed into the group by Prime Minister Modi, has to pull some economic weight before its membership is recognised as something more than a signal to virtue. Prime Minister Modi has in both cases crafted an important launching pad for a diplomatic journey that needs much more steering by him among the few at the helm.
His third and most significant achievement at G20, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC) linking India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel to Italy, Spain and Europe, deserves the unreserved accolade of ‘historic’, because of its conceptual daring, practical potential and game-changing strategic implications.
The radical swerve is the connectivity between Saudi Arabia and Haifa, the largest of Israel’s three principal ports on the Mediterranean with a natural deepwater harbour.
India’s ancient spice route took trade from Kerala and Gujarat to the Red Sea, then by caravan to the Nile and by boat to Alexandria where ships from Venice and Genoa were waiting to take the precious cargo to Europe. The modern corridor will traverse through the UAE, then travel on Saudi roads or trains towards Haifa in Israel, and thence to Europe. It is a coherent economic bridge with the Gulf as a fulcrum, and the ability to convert what has been described as the emerging Red Sea economy into a global asset.
This corridor marks an alignment with another remarkable diplomatic coup, the Abraham Accords, signed on September 15, 2020 between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain under the aegis of Washington during the Trump administration. The signatures marked the start of something far more than a limited trilateral understanding. They were not designed to increase the number of tourists and kosher restaurants in Dubai or enable a UAE company to buy into a football team in Jerusalem—all of which, incidentally, have happened.
They were meant to inspire economic cooperation and integration across the hurdles of history and geography. The use of Abraham was homage to the Prophet and patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three Abrahamic faiths. ‘Accords’ echoed the Camp David treaty of March 1979 signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin under the benevolent gaze of President Jimmy Carter. For nearly five decades Camp David has helped prevent a fourth all-out war between Arab nations and Israel. Camp David’s flaw was that while it stopped war it could not start the momentum for sustainable peace.
The Abraham Accords had only two options: they could either grow or wither. They would not survive in the arid atmosphere of uncertainty. Expansion did not mean the inclusion of distant and peripheral Morocco, which only wanted a trade-off American recognition for its claims in Western Sahara. The stability and strength of the pact lay in Saudi Arabia’s inclusion. But the political implications of Saudi recognition of Israel with Palestine still in limbo were a deal-blocker. Saudi diplomats understood the dilemma, even as they talked up the potential of a Red Sea economy bolstered by Israel and the Gulf. America is in the process of offering Riyadh a defence guarantee to encourage progress, but that is not a solution to the Palestine dilemma.
There is an old Sufi answer to an eternal human question: what do you do when you are trapped in a vicious circle?
You create a bigger circle.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done just that. With brilliant finesse, he has expanded the arc of cooperation, thereby easing dangerous friction with just enough to accommodate a trade route that includes Saudi Arabia and Israel. The corridor does not over-promise, nor will it under-achieve; that is its true strength.
It harmonises the basic principle of Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy, which was the theme of G20 in Delhi: the world is a family.
Simultaneously, IMEEC implements a dictum central to Modi’s pragmatism: a neighbour is defined by reach, not distance. In 2014 and 2015 Prime Minister Modi reached out to both Dhaka and Islamabad, but got a response from only one. The relationship with Bangladesh is flourishing. Pakistan remained obstinate, arrogant and shortsighted. It has been consigned to the shrug-and-ignore basket. Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has publicly praised India’s progress under Narendra Modi since 2017, and lamented Pakistan’s regress. He might reflect on his own obduracy when he had the chance to cooperate with India. Today, India and Bangladesh are neighbours. Land border points and airports are amity zones. Pakistan is a geographical presence, not a neighbour: Attari in Punjab is better known for martial theatre at sunset than travel during the day. The Gulf and India are neighbours. There must be a thousand flights a week between them, evidence of multi-level reach between governments, businesses and people. Narendra Modi invested in this friendship; he was the first prime minister in 36 years to visit the UAE. His predecessors were too busy travelling elsewhere. The initiative was reciprocated. India, a manufacturing hub and investment destination, is now the eastern bulwark of a corridor of prosperity between two continents, changing lives and relations along the way, eliding conflict and nurturing economic growth. This is the stuff of history.
SCRIBBLE VS SCREAM
This corpse is as dead as the silly dodo. ‘In cold print’ used to be a metaphor; now it is a frozen fact. As cold as a corpse. It is entirely appropriate that the obituary of print media’s influence was delivered by a political doyen, Sharad Pawar, who has seen both the rise and fall. Pawar became a Maharashtra MLA in 1967 when Sham Lal was editor of The Times of India, Evan Charlton of The Statesman, Ajit Bhattacharya of the Hindustan Times, and Frank Simoes of the Indian Express while the legendary Kuldip Nayar was startling the country with scoop after scoop. Pawar has watched the temperate plateau of media slowly crumble into a temperamental cliff with a one-way slope.
Sharad Pawar presided over the INDIA alliance’s decision to boycott 14 television anchors. Here’s the sad part: not a single print journalist was considered worthy of outrage. Was this an implied tribute, a judgment that print journalism is balanced, etc? But in the pre-noise era, print editors and columnists used to be regulars on the enemies’ list of governments. Perhaps the unsubtle hint is that print is useless. TV anchors are the toughies. They shout. They shape the discourse. They don’t necessarily have to make sense, although some try to do so. But the big thing is noise. Anchors are the high priests of Bedlam, worthy of being ostracised.
The scribble has been vanquished by the scream. May the soul of print rest in disquiet.
THE PERPETUITY EDIT
Democrats across the world, arise. You have nothing to lose but your faltering reputation. Learn censorship from the old masters. Be calm, not brazen. Use juicy carrots and carry a sleek, steel-tipped stick. The true British ruling class, the landed aristocracy with royals atop the narrow pyramid, still has much to teach us.
Veteran journalists in London are now revealing details of the known unknown: everything written about the British monarch is sieved by censorship in one way or another. This is how you preserve the credibility of kings, queens and direct heirs. You dictate the narrative. There are rewards for loyalty, while privileges disappear for the disloyal. The king is the image. Well: in the bad old days, you could lose your head for lese-majesty. Losing your job is a distinct improvement.
This art of British royal censorship is cloaked in exquisite English. It is called a “perpetuity edit”. Amen.
A nugget which you may find useful during conversation at your next party.
Whenever any Mr Clever delivers a parting shot, tell him to thank the Parthians, who ruled Persia for five centuries until 224 CE. Their parting shot was literally lethal. Their cavalry had the devastating ability to fire arrows on horseback from an astonishing 180º angle while speeding away, racing out of enemy reach. The Parthian arrow became the parting shot.
Parthians can also claim credit for the verbal parting shot. In 54 BCE Crassus led the first Roman invasion of the Parthian empire. The Parthian emissary was blunt. He showed the palm of his hand to Crassus and said, “Hair will grow here before you see Seleucia.” The Parthian monarch Orodes II was watching theatre when Crassus’ head was brought to him. He said nothing. Perhaps his emissary had summed it all up in the parting shot.
WITH SEPTEMBER DWINDLING, the last rains in Goa have become a murmur of regret. Another annual miracle of renewal, of life to land and calm to mind is over. The energy of youth which chased the skies three months ago has ebbed. The winds have mellowed. Ganesh Chathurthi beckons, launching the celebration of festivals. A faint scent of winter has drifted into the early morning air. The end of another season signals the irretrievable passage of time. Change is the one thing that does not change.