A Chinese idea for Narendra Modi

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November 6, 2015

There’s a wonderful, fully authenticated story about Jawaharlal Nehru and Africa. I can’t disclose my source for the information, but let’s just say he was someone close to a spymaster who ruled supreme in the Indian intelligence community at one time.

November 6, 2015

There’s a wonderful, fully authenticated story about Jawaharlal Nehru and Africa. I can’t disclose my source for the information, but let’s just say he was someone close to a spymaster who ruled supreme in the Indian intelligence community at one time.

Back in the early 1960s, with India and African nations in the forefront of decolonization and modernization, a high Indian official arranged for the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, to be made a Hindu birth chart—what is known as a janam kundali in north India.

The subsequent result of planetary calculations crafted by a learned priest close to Nehru was dispatched to the spymaster, who happened to be in Accra, the capital of Ghana, with instructions to hand it over to President Nkrumah.

The spymaster, who was in Accra helping Ghana build its first post-independence intelligence agency, was naturally curious and read through it first—and was horrified to find that it predicted Nkrumah’s ouster from power in 1966. Keen not to upset the radical African leader with bad news in the midst of the burgeoning brotherhood of nations, the young Indian official tore out that portion of the birth chart and then sent the edited document over to Nkrumah.

In 1966, while on a state visit to China, the Ghanaian socialist was overthrown in a military coup, which may or may not have been engineered by Western agencies. Nkrumah’s wife and three children escaped to Egypt while Nkrumah himself found a safe haven in Guinea. He died six years later of cancer, increasingly paranoid about a plot to kill him. “I wish I had not torn that bit out of the janam kundali,” the Indian spymaster told my source for this anecdote, an ex-spy himself.

Quite so, Mr. spymaster—who knows, the course of African history might have been a bit different had Nkrumah been around until, well, the 1980s.

The episode illustrates the close and warm relations that Nehru enjoyed with African leaders. It was at Nehru’s insistence that the United Nations became alive to the evils of Apartheid, the system of racial discrimination that white minority practiced on the majority blacks of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

The gentle shadow of India’s first prime minister looms large over India’s ties with Africa and, arguably, much of Africa’s with the rest of the world through the notion of nonalignment. Yet, oddly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to 40-odd African leaders gathered in New Delhi last month for the third India-Africa summit failed to make a mention of Nehru. Which must have struck the guests as a bit like a speech on World War II in England without a mention of Winston Churchill.

The summit itself was, without a shred of doubt, a massive diplomatic coup for India—an inter-continental event of rare magnitude and grace, marked by much goodwill and a desire to make up for lost years of forgetfulness.

The absence of Nehru in Modi’s speech was seen as a slight by the opposition Congress, which (as if it needed a reason) promptly boycotted the Prime Minister’s dinner for the visiting dignitaries. It may have rankled with the Africans, too, because a number of them went on to pay tributes to Nehru in their own speeches at the summit.

Particularly generous in his comments was South African president Jacob Zuma, who also went on to pay a visit to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Links between Asia and Africa were forged in the struggle against colonialism, which, as noted in my last column, found post-independence expression in the non-aligned movement, now all but forgotten. The first formal platform to find—and possibly articulate (although that wasn’t going to be easy)—the commonalities between the two continents came in 1955 and Nehru was instrumental in inspiring and organizing it.

It was the first Asia-Africa Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, and attended by the leaders of 15 countries—14 if you take North and South Vietnam as a single country. These were radical leaders—most could see the dangers of the Cold War (honourable exceptions: Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, who were in the American camp) and keen to devise an alternative to war and exploitation. As a result, the historic Bandung conference, as is well known, led to the formation of the non-aligned movement some years later.

The event in New Delhi was not all about confronting Chinese influence in Africa. Neither, for that matter, was Bandung all about Nehru and China’s Zhou Enlai. However, according to some Western commentators, Bandung laid the ground for the later fissure between the Asian giants India and China. Equally, it may have been the setting for a personality clash—Nehru, several years older to Zhou, could have come across as patronizing. According to Chinese intelligence in 1954—I’m going by declassified documents—Nehru was keen to push the idea of an Asian zone of peace, which essentially meant confronting American defence pacts with Asian countries. That was a non-starter. But there may be something else from that historic meeting that India could consider today. In a meeting among Nehru, Zhou and Burma’s U Nu, the Chinese leader suggested a permanent “political institution” of Asian and African countries as a follow-up to the Bandung summit.

Nehru wasn’t keen at all, saying the 29 countries represented at Bandung shouldn’t be seen as setting up an alternative institution to the UN. Maybe an economic institution, he suggested, but then added that there were so many differences between these African and Asian nations.

A Chinese idea for Narendra Modi: Links between Asia and Africa were forged in the struggle against colonialism, which, as noted in my last column, found post-independence expression in the non-aligned movement, now all but forgotten. Photo: AP© LiveMint Links between Asia and Africa were forged in the struggle against colonialism, which, as noted in my last column, found post-independence expression in the non-aligned movement, now all but…

In April this year, Modi skipped the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Bandung conference in Indonesia because the dates coincided with the Lok Sabha’s budget session. He sent instead foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and junior defence minister V.K. Singh. Both failed to mention Nehru in their speeches.

Perhaps African nations and India could make amends by borrowing from Zhao’s 1955 proposal, which Nehru turned down, and consider setting up an India-Africa secretariat to formalize this forum into a permanent trade body.


Courtesy: Live Mint

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