By Swapan Dasgupta
The Indian media, quite regrettably, doesn’t devote any time to China. Fortunately, the Western media is obsessed by it. And, in the past few days, impish Americans and European reporters are having quite a bit of fun—at China’s expense.
The amusement has been occasioned by the mysterious disappearance of Vice President Xi Jinping from the public stage. Xi, to the untutored, is not just any Vice President. In a few weeks he is scheduled to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the President of the People’s Republic.
Predictably, the web space—the only place where the irreverent can hope to smuggle in their subversive thoughts—has been buzzing with rumours suggesting, among other things, that he has been assassinated, that he is seriously ill with back troubles and that he has been abducted from a moving train. The official information-disseminators have put on their best inscrutable faces and have stonewalled. But that didn’t stop the Wall Street Journal from comparing Xi’s non-availability to Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary The Lady Vanishes. After suggesting that there could be a perfectly innocent explanation for Xi’s prolonged disappearance, the Financial Times observed, with just a hint of condescension, that “so opaque and anachronistic is the political system that people have nothing to fall back on but speculation. China’s leaders sometimes behave more like the imperial courts of old than guardians of a modern state.”
We in India, as we are so self-righteously inform every foreigner who complains about tardy decision-making and rampant inefficiency, are not China. We are, presumably, better. Our growth rate may no longer be anything to write home about. But as Amartya Sen has so often reminded us, we are a proud democracy, albeit an argumentative one. We have a free press that prevents cartoonists from being thrown into jail on charges of sedition; we have an activist press that hounds every minister who slyly conferred a coal block on a relative; and we also have a responsible media that doesn’t print tasteless photographs of a Prince Harry frolicking in the pink. Yes, we are superior—far superior than the self-righteous West and the over-regulated Chinese.
Or are we?
For the past week, the most important politician of the ruling coalition, the one who wields power without responsibility, has left the country on a health check-up. From all accounts, this is the fourth occasion in the past two years the supreme leader has left India for medical attention. In most democracies, such an occurrence would not have gone either unnoticed or unexplored. However, in a country where the notion of privacy just doesn’t exist, this absence is brushed away as a ‘private matter’, presumably as ‘private’ as Xi’s absence from the grand banquets in Beijing.
Maybe in matters concerning the health of an individual politician, squeamishness is in order—although this didn’t stop the Delhi Establishment from its bouts of endless (and quite non-informed) speculation. But what about the unofficially-designated heir apparent, the boy who was born to rule?
The Coalgate controversy has been raging for nearly three weeks. It has shaken the self-confidence of the Prime Minister and called into question the integrity quotient of ministers and politicians. Surely the event called for an intervention by the princeling who is expected to lead the ruling coalition into the next election. But where was the ‘youth icon’? Until he stepped into an IAF aircraft that took him to Kokrajhar—our armed forces have been reduced to the status of transport facilitators for the first family—there was little to differentiate our crown prince from China’s crown prince. Both were AWOL.
Yet, there was one crucial difference: in China, they asked “Where is Xi?” but in India leadership in purdah has become the new normal.
Last week, a book written by a young journalist trying to ‘decode’ the elusive icon was released. From all accounts she never got to speaking distance of the subject of her research. The farce inspired a venerable London-based weekly to attempt to decipher the man who doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t interact with the political class, who talks through his polished and polite minders and who is occasionally seen but rarely heard on matters consequential. The result was predictable: we know nothing about the man who may be king. Not even the number of days he stays in India.
In the bad old days of the Cold War, a large number of people built their reputations on the strength of being Kremlin-watchers. The order of precedence on the podium at the annual rally to commemorate the revolution, a cryptic reference in Pravda and even the music played on the radio provided the only clues to deciphering the workings of an opaque system.
It was the same in China. When Mao Zedong quite inexplicably smiled at the Indian Ambassador at some official function, it was taken as a powerful sign that Beijing wanted a thaw in bilateral relations. When the Great Helmsman suddenly launched into a bizarre attack on Beethoven, it was taken as a sign that Lin Biao was in disfavour.
Sunday Pioneer, September 16, 2012