What caught my eyes this week

Departing from the practice of writing on one subject in a column I cover three separate issues which caught my eye over the past few days. They are seemingly unconnected but all involve foreign countries and are relevant to India and its interests.

Thailand: the passion for cleanliness

I wrote on the unrest in Thailand in these columns about a month ago. In the period since then protests for reform of the monarchical system and the ouster of the government have become sharper. Demonstrations supporting the monarchy have also been held. Parliament is in session and earlier this week protesters marched to near its premises. The police sought to disperse them by using water cannons but the protesters held their ground though many got injured. The police did not take any further action. The protests subsided in the evening but before dispersing the demonstrators voluntarily cleared the trash and debris at the demonstration venue.

The practice of keeping public places clean is part of Thai culture. It can be seen in the crowded streets of Bangkok where food stalls abound but garbage is almost never seen around them. Both the stall owners and their customers ensure that all litter is thrown into bins. Before winding up for the day hawkers always clean the space around their stalls. This value of cleanliness is inculcated from a young age among the Thais. It is emphasised in homes and in schools that keeping one’s person and the immediate surroundings clean is a part of civilised behaviour.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis of Swachh Bharat is praiseworthy. The reality of a clean India will only be realised though when all the people think that keeping public spaces clean is everyone’s responsibility and not that of government and some social groups alone. That process has to begin in homes and schools but political parties and groups organising public meetings and rallies can look to the Bangkok demonstrators for inspiration.

Modi-Biden conversation

Modi spoke to US President-elect Joe Biden on November 17 to congratulate him on his victory. Soon after it became clear that Biden had won the election, and even though President Donald Trump had not admitted that he had lost and has indeed still not done so, the Canadian Prime Minister and the leaders of the west European countries which are US’s traditional allies—the UK, Germany and France—spoke to Biden as did those of Japan and South Korea. Leaders of many countries would have wanted to talk to Biden; unlike that of Trump, his staff would have prioritised them in keeping with US’s traditional ties with the countries concerned. This is indicative also that Biden is returning to the established US diplomatic patterns. Indian diplomacy will have to factor this in as it will proceed with a Biden administration after he assumes office on January 20 next year.

Modi tweeted about his conversation with Biden. The Ministry of External Affairs and the Biden team issued statements about the call too. Naturally, the issues that came up between the two leaders have been listed in the three brief accounts are the same but there are interesting and noteworthy differences in nuances. Expectedly both Modi and Biden committed themselves to taking the bilateral relations—the strategic partnership—forward. Both also focussed on the primary current global issue, COVID-19 but the Biden team readout does not call it as Trump does—-China virus. Interestingly, climate change and the maintenance of an open Indo-Pacific region were also referred to by both leaders. The latter is in keeping with Trump’s priorities but not the former for he has taken the US out of the Paris pact. It is striking that the Biden read out mentions Kamala Harris descent as “South Asian” not Indian. Only time will tell if this is a deliberate formulation. If so, it will have significant connotations.

India’s participation in multilateral summits

India took part in three multilateral summit meetings in virtual mode in the past ten days. These were the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, the East Asia Summit (EAS) and that of BRICS. While Modi represented India at the SCO and the BRICS meetings, external affairs minister S Jaishankar did so at the EAS. The background, direction and impulses of the three organisations are different and India’s participation in all three is an indication of this country’s diverse interests and the significance to the region and beyond. Interestingly, China and Russia also participate in all three. That shows how India has acquired major power status. No other South Asian country is part of all three.

The basic impulse of the SCO is for China and Russia to ensure that Central Asia remains an area of their influence and that the US role is contained. While India has no interest in getting involved in these games it has interests and old connections in the region and more so in its periphery. Its participation in the SCO partly serves the purpose of adding a dimension to its contacts with Central Asia. The EAS membership enables India to play a role in the Indo-Pacific region which will be of increasing importance for it in the years to come. BRICS is a grouping of emerging economies who wish to ensure a place in the rule making councils of the world. The problem is that China is showing less interest in collective action for this purpose and more in acting aggressively alone. This will need great diplomatic navigation on India’s part.