India May Not Like It, But Sri Lanka Can’t Move Completely Away From China

Buried under billions of dollars of Chinese debt, Colombo has little option but to go along, albeit at a pace slower than earlier. After all, Chinese money did prop up the war-battered economy and created jobs. and this did help the government in ending the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Chinese know that while the wicket might be sticky at this point, the pitch will eventually help the ball turn their way.

Read Here – The Wire

Dragon Flu – Is It Just A Sneeze Or…?

China has been the elephant in the room since Lehman Brothers folded up, triggering the last wave of global economic turmoil. It stood out as the biggest contributor to global growth in the past eight years. But now the bubble, long expected to burst due to a mammoth build up of debt, is popping the wrong way.

Read Here – Businessworld

Majed And His Mosque

Rahul Sharma

I could have met Majed any time, any place. Only, I was destined to meet him at Bahrain’s Grand Mosque one hot, balmy afternoon.

It wasn’t that I knew of Majed and went looking for him; he just happened and there we were, two perfect strangers, sitting on the plush carpet under the al Fateh mosque’s huge chandelier talking about our lives and religion. One a god-fearing Muslim; another a Hindu by birth who sometimes visits temples to appreciate their architectural values.

But it is easy to talk to strangers. There is no baggage, nothing to prove. You can be friends later, but for that moment there are few barriers and the conversation meaningful.

So when Majed, with a smile on his face, extended his hand and offered to show me around the big mosque, I was more than glad to have someone I could talk to.

Majed, he said, introducing himself, as we walked towards the marble-tiled courtyard and he began telling me the history of the place. Through the big courtyard, which was much smaller than the one at the grand mosque in Abu Dhabi, he took me inside to the large, carpeted prayer hall where hung one of the most beautiful chandelier I had seen.

The Al-Fateh mosque in the Bahraini capital Manama took four years to build and was opened in 1988. Spread over 6,500 square meters, it can accommodate 7,000 worshippers. It is part of an Islamic centre, which also includes a large Islamic library and a department of Quranic studies.

The floor and some walls of mosque are covered with Italian marbles, the huge dome from which hangs the Austrian-made chandelier is made of fibreglass and the massive doors are made of teak brought in from India. Hand-blown glass lamps surround the chandelier, adding to its regal disposition.

“The wood was brought from India and the doors were made here,” Majed informed me, as he sized my interests and showed me key points from where I could take photographs.

Once inside, where in a corner some students softly learnt to recite the holy Quran, Majed and I sat down and began chatting. But before that, he took my camera, lay down right under the big chandelier and took a picture. “You see it best lying down,” he said. Indeed, I did.

Majed had questions. Who was I, where had come from, what was my interest in the mosque, was I religious, did I believe in God, did I understand Islam, what all had I seen in Bahrain, whether it was my the first time in his country?

I had my questions: was being a guide at the mosque his day job? What did he do in his free time? Was he a Shiite or a Sunni (Bahrain is majority Shiite, but the ruling family is Sunni)? Where had he studied? What was his world view? Did he consider the West his enemy? Was he political? Did he believe the recent nuclear deal between Iran and several other countries led by the United States would change the politics of the region?

Majed was happy to answer. He helped visitors at the mosque because his English was good and he could, therefore, as in my case, understand the questions and answer them. He was at the mosque a couple of days a week, but his real job was with the coast guard which he had joined after a stint in the navy.

His near flawless English suggested he had studied abroad. Yes, he had gone to the United States to study, he told me, adding that it was all paid for by his government.

“I remember being stunned by the green plants and trees there. Here we only have yellow sand,” he said, pointing outside one of the large glass window battered by the hot afternoon sun.

Majed said he understood the world and its people better once he stepped out of Bahrain. They didn’t hate us, he said. I wanted to ask him what he meant by that, but then we were distracted by some other visitors and the conversation moved towards what I knew of Islam. “Are you a Shiite or a Sunni,” I asked. His answer: I am a Muslim; sects are created by people who are interested in power.

Reflections In The Mirror

When I asked him to elaborate, he explained the root of the word Islam which is both a verb and a noun. A verb because it come from aslama that means to surrender, submit or obey. A noun because it is the name used in the holy Quran for followers of Islam, but since the Arabic prefix “mu” is added to denote the one performing the action it become “Mu”- “Islam” or Muslim.

My education didn’t stop there, and it wasn’t religious propaganda that he wanted to share with me. Majed was only trying to clear what he thought were my misperceptions and misrepresentations of a religion he felt I didn’t really understand.

His was an honest attempt to show me the mirror that clearly reflected my lack of knowledge of the world’s fastest growing religion at a time when it is under attack in various ways from various quarters.

Later, after I had answered his questions, we stepped up into the large balcony of the prayer hall from where the view of the chandelier was even better. The glass bulbs added to the mystery of a dome that looked dark and deep.

“This is where the women gather for prayers,” Majed told me, as we walked around the carpeted area towards a huge window through which some of Manama was visible. He shared more photograpic tips with me, as I clicked more pictures.

His final question as he walked down the stairs to show me out was whether I believed in God. I told him I didn’t, but I believed in the existence of some supernatural power at play at times. He looked at me for a while, nodded and said: “There isn’t much difference between the two, is it?”

I stepped out in the heat, looked at the imposing minaret of the sandstone mosque, and wondered whether there was indeed any difference in our Gods. Then I realised I didn’t know Majed’s full name. I hadn’t asked him; he hadn’t told me. Two strangers had parted way, dissolving in the sands of time, as quickly as they had met.

As A Brand Gandhi Lives On

By Rahul Sharma


Djibouti is not a usual tourist destination.

It is a small country on the Horn of Africa with a population of less than a million. Surrounded by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, it lies next to Africa’s badlands. The biggest advantage it has is its access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which makes it a busy refuelling and transshipment centre.

So why am I talking of Djibouti?
Visuals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute at a statue of Mahatma Gandhi during his recent visit to the United States reminded me of my trip to the Horn of Africa a few years ago. And to my surprise I found that just as he stands tall outside the Indian embassy in Washington, the Mahatma lives in Djibouti too.
Armed soldiers manned the dusty roundabout where his bust stood when I visited. Stray dogs lazed under military vehicles and bored soldiers hung around, nervously playing with their automatic weapons.

The surroundings were at odds with a man who preached peace and non-violence, but there he was as he is in several countries—bald, round spectacles sitting on his nose, looking at a world where his teachings are still relevant and another that has left him behind.

What was Gandhi doing there, I wondered aloud. Oh, he is everywhere, responded an Indian diplomat who was part of a group visiting Djibouti for the inauguration of a new Dubai-funded port.

Brand Gandhi

Indeed, the Mahatma is omnipresent in afterlife. He is the most famous brand India has produced. The boost to the country’s soft power through his statues and busts that dot public spaces across continents is not only huge, but also enduring. He has now lived in the hearts and mind of billions for nearly 80 years since his assassination. And by the looks of it, he isn’t fading away soon.

The “half-naked fakir”, as Winston Churchill famously called him, is a face probably better recognized than those of most Bollywood actors. In fact, probably better known than that of Churchill, the man who hated the Mahatma and whose rivalry brought the British Empire down.
Gandhi, like Churchill, died a broken man. Politically irrelevant after he guided India to independence, Gandhi’s legacy at home has been constantly debated. However, his contribution to India’s global image is unparalleled.
As British India broke into two and millions of people perished in pre- and post-partition violence, Gandhi, shunned by his disciples, virtually retired, bitterly complaining that nobody listened to him anymore. His murder, by a religious fanatic, however, changed the course of events. In his death he achieved what he couldn’t when he lived—bring a turbulent nation together and stop the gory dance of violence that had enveloped the infant republic.

His martyrdom eventually put him on history’s high pedestal and made him acceptable globally as an apostle of peace, ensuring his brand of politics remained relevant. In India, politicians, convulsing against his political thought, consigned him to school text books—bringing him alive on his death and birth anniversaries for formal ceremonies that involved the twice annual ritual of cleaning bird droppings from his statues and naming public schemes after him.

A different path

Frank Moraes, the editor of The Times of India, recounted a conversation with HSL Polak—one of Gandhi’s close associates in South Africa—in an article he wrote for the Foreign Affairs journal to mark the Mahatma’s 10th death anniversary in 1958. He asked Polak how much of Gandhi’s teaching he thought survived in India. “Ostensibly a great deal… In reality, very little,” said Polak.

Indeed, neither India nor the Congress Party ever accepted Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence as creed. “The Congress Party, including Nehru and other prominent leaders such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, accepted non-violence but only as a method. With them it was an instrument of political practice, not an article of faith,” wrote Moraes.
In the 56 years since his article, the situation has only worsened. Very little of the Mahatma’s politics has survived in India; we could, however, despite our reluctance, take pride in our ability to export an enduring brand. It is perhaps more relevant to the world than to India, mostly because we have chosen to take a path different from his.

That probably was a good reason why Richard Attenborough’s film on the man many Britons hated won the Oscar for best film. That probably was also the reason for the U.S. Congress to pass a special legislation allowing the Mahatma’s statute in Washington to be installed on government land.

While we, as a nation, use him on occasions of political exigencies, the world only wants more of Gandhi for his political thought.

Myriad Mahatmas

Indeed, the metallic Mahatma is much in demand. Under a well-structured programme run jointly by India’s overseas missions, which work out the modalities of the placement of statues and busts, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) that pays the sculptors who make the statutes, replicas of the bespectacled apostle of peace are regularly shipped to the world.

Between 2001 and 2010, nearly 70 busts and statues of the Mahatma were sent to dozens of countries by the ICCR. That’s an average of seven a year. The bust I saw in Djibouti was sent in 2003 for installation on a street named after the Mahatma. The cigar chewing Mr. Churchill, who never regretted his long-time rival’s death, hasn’t had it so good!
The Mahatma’s statue is due to be unveiled at the Parliament Square in London next year alongside those of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela—the man who was so influenced by Gandhi as he led his people to an apartheid-free South Africa. Churchill’s statue is one of the 10 already erected at this place.

Owning Gandhi

Here, at home, he still has an occasional use. The stamp of moral authority that he has left on this nation means the Mahatma—though a Congress man—can be greedily adopted by other political parties when required. Modi’s effort to make him the face of his “Clean India” campaign is just another example of Gandhi’s use for political convenience.

Despite promising to build a towering statue of Patel in the run up to the general elections that swept him to power, Modi now wants his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to own “Brand Gandhi” and take over the events that mark the death and birth anniversaries of the Mahatma. Up until now, these ceremonies were the responsibility of a special committee constituted by an Act of parliament.
The Mahatma’s adoption by the BJP—the political face of an organization whose members celebrated the Mahatma’s death—is ironic, but then that’s the strength of a brand that has endured the rough and tumble of time.

It’s always long term for China


By Rahul Sharma

There is nothing to be excited about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to skip Pakistan during his forthcoming South Asia tour. Some might argue that it would have been a good time for Xi to land in Islamabad to show support for the country roiled by political uncertainty, but let’s be clear that the call to stay away does not reflect any change in relations between the two long-standing friends.

Xi is due to visit India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives later this month, trips during which he will test prime minister Narendra Modi’s keenness to improve trade ties between the world’s two most populous countries and reaffirm Beijing’s deepening ties with Colombo that has attracted vast amounts of Chinese investments in its infrastructure.

Ties between India and China have always been testy given the border dispute that saw the two go to war back in 1962. Frosty relations have thawed in recent years and trade between the two neighbours has grown, but there is still a long way to go before any degree of mutual trust can be established.

Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said this week that while Modi and Xi had established good relations when they met at the BRICs summit in Brazil soon after general elections in India, she also made it clear that Beijing had been delivered a strong message that it had to respect the “one-India policy (which means no claims on Arunachal Pradesh) given that New Delhi recognised Tibet and Taiwan to be part of China.

One thing India and its diplomats can be clear about is that his decision to skip Islamabad from his tour does not mean China is ready to dump Pakistan. Usually Chinese leaders club their visits to India and Pakistan, but all that a de-linking this time around could possibly do is give New Delhi temporary comfort that at this point it figures higher in Beijing’s priority than in the past.

One thing India and its diplomats can be clear about is that his decision to skip Islamabad from his tour does not mean China is ready to dump Pakistan. Usually Chinese leaders club their visits to India and Pakistan, but all that a de-linking this time around could possibly do is give New Delhi temporary comfort that at this point it figures higher in Beijing’s priority than in the past.

China seldom takes a short-term view of the world, and has clearly defined its relations with other nations on the basis of its long-term goals and needs. A recent info graphic in Global Times, a Chinese government-run newspaper, provided a view of how Beijing divides its worldly ties.

China essentially follows four partnership models: creative partnership, comprehensive cooperative partnership, strategic partnership (of cooperation) and comprehensive strategic partnership (of cooperation). The difference, according to the newspaper, is that while cooperative partnerships are formed at a fundamental level, are bilateral in nature and focus mainly on politics, economics, science and technology and culture, the strategic partnerships can be both bilateral or multilateral and are based on benefits of national security.

While one would imagine that diplomacy and foreign relations are usually dynamic in nature and, therefore, likely to change depending on circumstances, in China’s case one can merrily assume that any shift will only be snail paced with little or no change in the foundation. Foreign policy, like so many other things in China, can be rather nuanced and small variations in definition of relationships can mean a lot more than what the world outside may understand.

So it is interesting to see that China clubs the European Union and most large European nations except Germany and Russia as those with which it has a comprehensive strategic partnership. With Germany it has an “all-round strategic partnership” and with Russia it is in a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”

With India, Afghanistan, South Korea and Sri Lanka, Beijing shares a “strategic cooperative partnership”. That means it sees all of them through the same prism, an idea that may not appeal to India, but might go down well in Kabul and Colombo.

According to the Global Times, China’s ties with ASEAN, central Asian republics, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and some East European countries are seen to be one of “strategic partnership”, while those with Nepal, Congo, Bangladesh and some other key African nations fall under the head “comprehensive cooperative partnership.”

The emerging great power rivalry with the United States and the old, historic unhappiness with Japan has led China to define its relationship with these two very differently than those with other nations of the world.

It calls its engagement with the United States a “new model of major-power relationship”, which means Beijing definitely sees itself in league with Washington, an idea that obviously reflects on its relationships with other capitals. In short that means that while China is willing to engage with all, it doesn’t consider anyone a bigger rival than the United States. Countries such as India are, therefore, mostly marginal to China’s larger cause.

Similarly, its defines ties with Japan as a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit.” Given the huge bilateral trade and Japanese investments in China even as the two battle over a gory past, the definition makes sense.

Pakistan is the only country with which China has an “all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation.” In layman’s terms, it simply means that Beijing considers its relationship with Islamabad over and beyond its ties with all others. The phrase “all-weather” is key; China might be willing to shift gears either way in its relations with other countries, with Pakistan it will always be an even ride just as it has been for the past several decades.

Let’s not forget it was Pakistan that essentially helped Beijing open its door to the world in the 1970s, an event that has now propelled China to almost become the world’s biggest economy. China never forgets its friends and that’s a thought Pakistan can live comfortably with irrespective of whether it has a democratically elected government or army rule.

It’s also a thought India’s new government needs to keep in its mind while dealing with Beijing and Xi, the now all-powerful man in China.

Rahul Sharma, a former newspaper editor, is President, Rediffusion Communications, Mumbai; Secretary, Public Affairs Forum of India, and a keen foreign policy follower. Views are personal.

Bringing Down the Walls


By Rahul Sharma

Most concrete walls in Sri Lanka have been demolished in the past four years since the ethnic war ended, but the emotional barricades remain as the country battles its bloody past and tries to make peace with itself.

It’s easier said than done.

The scars of a three-decade-long war that killed tens of thousands of people and introduced suicide bombers to the world are deep and the government’s efforts to bridge the ravine that divides the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamils communities are constantly questioned inside and outside the country.

On the face of it, peace has only made a pretty country prettier.

The capital Colombo, once infested with check points manned by gun toting soldiers, is a very different place.

Parks hidden by tall walls, homes surrounded by bricks and mortars and colonial-era public buildings once guarded by armed soldiers have emerged from behind sand bags, metal gates and machine gun barricades to soothe public eyes. The concrete, iron spikes and steel wires have given way to beautifully lit walkways where people walk in the mornings and children play in the as the sun sets.

More importantly, there is discipline on the roads and the traffic is managed better than even despite an increasing crowd of vehicles. The once-decrepit, bat-infested Vihara Mahadevi Park near the beautiful, British-era Town Hall in Colombo has been cleaned up and the famous Independence Square is a must-visit place.

Old, heritage buildings nearby — once home to government offices and the military — are being converted into jazzy shopping areas with fancy retail outlets and restaurants.

Colombo, a party town even during the days of the war, is awaiting plush hotels and casinos to come up along the famous Galle Face Green. A new Chinese-developed port stretches out into the Indian Ocean, a sign of huge investments into infrastructure that the government hopes would keep boosting the economy.

Outside of Colombo, new highways to the south and the east and a new railway line to the north have once-again connected the island to allow people to freely travel to areas that were once out of bounds because of the war.

But scratch the surface and there is a deep worry about what the future holds for a country where trained former soldiers are now building roads, running restaurants and even selling vegetables. In the north, where once the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ruled, are thousands of ‘rehabilitated” former fighters thanking the government for the peace that surrounds them but at the same time looking for jobs and ways to make ends meet.

Despite new roads, bridges, seaports and airports the government has built and is building, and a consequent economic growth of around 7 percent, the mood on the street is somber, as the private sector is still battling to grow at a pace that could create the kind of jobs Sri Lanka needs.

A fat government that provided employment to 50,000 job-seeking youth last year and is battling a widening fiscal deficit can’t continue on that path for long.

On the other hand is the divide between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities. For more than quarter of a century, the Sinhalese equated Tamils with the LTTE as soldiers from deep southern villages lost their lives in the country’s north. The war might have ended, but the ethnic divide is yet to be fully bridged.

Allegations of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military in the last days of the war and international pressure to come clean on the charges has only made it difficult for the two communities to come closer.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is in his second term and is credited with vanquishing the LTTE, has consistently maintained that what happened back in 2009 was Sri Lanka’s internal matter and that it was being addressed in ways best known to and understood by the country.

However, in a historically violence-prone nation such as Sri Lanka – which not only battled the LTTE but also an attempted revolution by the People’s Liberation Front in the 1970s and 1980s – the chances of acute disgruntlement triggering another bloodbath can be considered to be high. That is what the government of the day has to worry about and ensure that the window for the peace dividend is not lost due to delays in processes.

More importantly, the international stakeholders, including Western governments, need to appreciate that the only people who will be able to solve their differences and build a better future are Sri Lankans themselves. It is easy to voice opinion in an attempt to influence events, but if Sri Lankans have to find peace they have to be left alone and allowed to put in place systems that will help mold a strong future.

Recent regional elections in the country’s north in which a Tamil party won power should be seen as a right step towards bridging the big divide. It is now necessary to build on this, as that’s the only way to bring down the emotional and ethnic walls.

Is Chinese Money Good?

By Rahul Sharma


In the larger scheme of things there are today two countries that have the capability and the capacity to funnel substantial investments into foreign markets. One is the United States – the traditional home of large multinational companies with global footprint. The other is China, which is looked at with suspicion not only in India, but in the United States as well.

At a time when India needs to attract higher foreign investments – not only to bridge its gaping current account deficit, but to also create millions of new jobs – there is a need to look at Chinese companies differently than we have in the past. And we can learn lessons from the Americans, who worry about China’s rise as much as we do.

The first lesson is to be pragmatic. The second is to find a right balance between politics and business despite the usual noise that tends to drown reason to accommodate the interests of both sides.

Last year, two Chinese technology companies – Huawei and ZTE – were hauled over the coal by the intelligence committee of the U.S. House of Representatives after concerns over national security threats. “Chinese telecommunications companies provide an opportunity for the Chinese government to tamper with the United States telecommunications supply chain,” the committee’s investigation report said.

It recommended that the United States should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the US telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturers and private companies should consider the long-term security risks associated with doing business with these Chinese companies. Of course, the two companies protested loudly as anybody would, but the report is now a permanent marker in US-China relations.

However, Americans turned out to be eventually pragmatic. They have not only allowed Chinese companies to invest in the key energy sector, last month the largest acquisition of an American company by a Chinese firms went through without serious hiccups.

There was cause of celebrations when shareholders of the US Smithfield Foods Inc. agreed to sell their company to China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd for $4.7 billion. The deal went through despite initial concerns over national security.

Let’s return to India. The same telecommunications companies that got hammered in the United States have also been under the government microscope for some time. Every Chinese company looking to invest in India quickly becomes a victim of a 50-year-old narrative when India and China went to war over a border issue. Since the issue remains unresolved, the mindset demands that everything China and Chinese needs to be looked at suspiciously.

If for a moment we do agree that Chinese companies have sinister plans to destabilize India, we need to look West – towards Europe, Africa and both North and South America where cash-flushed Chinese state-owned and private firms have been on a business buying spree for some years now. While the big focus was energy earlier, the trend has changed as different businesses (going cheap everywhere post the 2008 financial crisis) are being eyed and bought.

Given that most American companies have virtually given up on India and are keener to invest in their domestic economy that is beginning to finally expand, the only source of investment that India could possibly look at is China. However, it has to be pragmatic and balanced in attracting the kind of investments it wants and in sectors where the threat factor is low. Let’s not forget that the eventual plan of the two countries is to raise bilateral trade to $100 billion in the next few years, and that opens up several possibilities for Chinese investments in sectors that are safer from a “national security” point of view.

While geopolitics will always continue to play a strong role in India-China relations, let’s also understand and appreciate that the two need each other – for different reasons of course. While it is in India’s interest to bridge its trade deficit with China, it is also in China’s interest to get a toehold in the Indian market at a time when its exports to the West are shrinking and its overall economy beginning to slow down.

Similarly, it is in the interest of Chinese companies to overtake Japanese and South Korean brands that have made India a strong home in the last two-odd decades. For India, which is now talking of allowing Chinese companies to set up shop in special economic zones (than let them run around freely in the countryside), the focus should be on getting the best deal for the government and the people.

National security, like everything else, is relative to the situation on ground at a certain period in time. India needs to handle matters with China confidently and keeping its interests in mind.

Let’s go back to the Americans again. Back in 1971, President Richard Nixon and his right hand man Henry Kissinger set the ball rolling to bring China into the global economic mainstream. The reason was geopolitical, For three decades after that American companies poured in billions of dollars into that country, bringing it to a point that now Americans themselves have started looking at China as an emerging global power that could overtake the United States in the near future.

The threat of China to the superpower is as real as it to a regional power such as India, which also happens to share a troublesome border issue with the large neighbor. Good business always makes for good politics and, therefore, it is in the interest of bother India and China to ramp up investments.

India doesn’t have to entirely follow the American way, but it can surely learn how to deal better with the Chinese by letting them in in a manner that helps New Delhi resolve its economic troubles.

(The columnist, a former newspaper editor, is President, Public Affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller and co-founder of Public Affairs Forum of India. He has a keen interest in China and Southeast Asia. Views are personal