Friday, February 06, 2009

State seduction?

Republic Day parade has little to do with celebrations that reinforce our resolve to be free, democratic, socialist and secular. It is largely a realpolitik tool that allows a democracy to court leaders ranging from those who are theocratic to autocratic... a piece I wrote for the Outlook website:

As the republic entered into its 60th year, yet another edition of the Republic Day parade rolled along Rajpath yesterday. Like always, through much of January patriotism became a pain for many in Delhi as they adjusted their lives to a parade that is as divisive as it is grand.

The criticisms of the parade are many. The most cited one terms it as too "Stalinist" for a democracy. It is something that fits in well in Pyongyang, they point out, but not in New Delhi. They have a point. Our parade is not simply a display of impressive marching contingents, which is indeed practised by many, but includes brandishing real and faux military hardware. Should the latter have a place in a modern democracy like ours? None other has a parade that, in bits, is so farcical. Where else would you see soldiers atop wooden cut-outs and scaled models of tanks, ships and missiles moving to the tune of martial music or even the sound of simulated sea waves? It may be fine for schoolchildren but it's unacceptable for the country's armed forces to engage in something that is so risible and amateurish. And that too in front of a visiting head of state.


The parade, importantly, is not a public celebration. It is not a cutting-edge festival of India's best performing arts involving her most eminent artistes from across the country. That would be more befitting of nation that seeks to fete her progress and one that seeks to cultivate pride in her citizens. The parade, on the other hand, is largely restricted to politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, bussed-in children and those who can brave the morning chill and oppressive security.Moreover, for those who live in and visit Delhi, the parade cuts off one of the most coveted public spaces (the greens around India Gate) for several weeks as contingents rehearse for the parade. If cultivating an engaged citizenry is the goal, leaving this space open for the public would achieve far more. The cost of organising the parade and managing its security, which surely runs into crores, is also another reason for it to be scrapped.

So what justification can possibly exist for continuing with such a tradition that evokes so many criticisms? There is one evident reason: state seduction The significance of the parade today may be minimal but the occasion, over the last few years, has clearly become a tool to seduce states India wishes to engage with. A look at the chief guests of the last eight Republic Day parades reveals how 26th January has been used to "honour" heads of states with enormous fuel resources irrespective of their socialist, secular or democratic credentials. To hell with Republic Day and all what it stands for! This trend obviously evolved at a time when India needed to import energy to sustain its frenetic growth. And even before this trend crystallised the parade has helped India court whosoever it wanted and for whatever reasons by anointing one head of state for each year's parade.

This practice of luring energy-rich countries on Republic Day is apparent as a distinct pattern from at least 2000, with Olusegun Obasanjo, then the president of Nigeria that is Africa's leading oil producer. ONGC Videsh soon stepped into Nigeria and remains committed to building a $6 billion refining infrastructure there. Algeria was next in 2001 with its eighth largest reserve of natural gas in the world. In 2003 it was Iran's turn that had on offer the world's second largest reserves of oil and gas. Iran also happens to be OPEC's second-biggest exporter. After a gap of two years, this trend reasserted itself with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and OPEC's lynchpin being selected as India's chief guest. Vladimir Putin of Russia, which uses its vast gas reserves as a diplomatic tool these days, was the next chief guest in 2007.In most of these countries, India has strategic stakes in oil and gas fields and has significant energy ties with all of them.

By 2007 and in the backdrop of the Indo-US nuclear deal, nuclear energy was being touted as the solution to India's growing energy crisis. This also showed up in our choice of the chief guest for the parade. We, therefore, had France's Nicholas Sarkozy visit us as the chief guest of the 2008 Republic Day parade. France is one of the world leaders in nuclear technology and harnesses close to 80 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear sources. Russia, the chief guest for the year before, is also an important partner of India in nuclear fuel trade.


This year was no different with Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev being the guest of honour. His country, Kazakhstan in Central Asia, is home to the second largest uranium reserves and currently also has the 11th largest proven reserves of both oil and natural gas. That his democratic credentials are doubtful is of little disrespect to the free spirit of Republic Day. It is a thought that's brushed under the red carpet rolled out to greet him. Nazarbayev is the kind of leader who gets over 90 per cent votes in elections, the fairness of which is questioned by international observers. The Kazakh president has been in power uninterrupted since April 1990. He is even criticised for allegedly concentrating power in his hands and for amending his country's rules that allow him to return to the presidency for an unlimited number of terms. But for a democratic republic like ours that is no roadblock in honouring him as the chief guest for our Republic Day parade and signing uranium and petroleum deals with him on the occasion. No surprises if one of the following years a resource-rich despot is elevated to the same status.

Republic Day parade has little to do with celebrations that reinforce our resolve to be free, democratic, socialist and secular. It is largely a realpolitik tool that allows a democracy to court leaders ranging from those who are theocratic to autocratic (words which have no place in the Constitution we adopted on 26th January 1950). The showcasing of the parade and our military hardware is more akin to a blustering patriarch ordering his family members to put on their best for the guest at home for dinner. Much like a dictator who showcases "the best" his country has on offer to a fellow dictator. Many Indians will be thankful though they live in neither. Hope you had a happy Republic Day!