July 29, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

India is lucky. India has finally found in her new President, A P J Abdul Kalam, an achiever who can also dream. This has been terribly lacking since Independence.

What does a 'vision' mean in Indian politics today? A five-year 'vision' is usually limited to an increase in the allotment in the next Five Year Plan. But can this be called a vision? In fact, in most of the cases, 'political vision' is usually limited to the next elections. How to get re-elected for a few more years to enjoy the attendant benefits?

One of the worst cases of short-term vision is the former Railway Minister, resigning from the Cabinet to embarrass George Fernandes on the Tehelka issue and bring down the government. A few months later, the same leader started to vociferously demand her job back.

She is now locking horn with her successor in the Railway ministry in a bitter dispute over the bifurcation of the Eastern Railway into two new zones. While these visionless leaders threaten to paralyze the country's life-line and stop all trains if their constituencies are not given their 'due share', it is interesting to have a look at India's neighbour.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported: "If you think railroad booms disappeared with the steam engine and Manifest Destiny, think again. Just as the US used rails to link its eastern and western seaboards in the 19th century and lay the foundations for superpowerdom, China is now betting that new rail lines will spur its own economic rise."

China will be spending $42 billion during the next five years, which means that the central government will add 4,400 miles of track to the country's 43,000-mile rail network. It means a more than 10 per cent increase in less than five years.

It makes China the fastest track laying country in the world.

It does not mean that China's visions are always good for her people or that, unlike India, China has no leadership problems. The top shots of the Politburo are currently meeting at the resort town of Beidaihe, 280 kilometres east of Beijing, to discuss Jiang Zemin's succession, they may escape Beijing's heat, but they will surely not be exempted of another heat with Jiang wanting to hang on to his seat.

However in China, the problems between the leaders, probably more acute than in India (which has the safety valve of the elections), do not interfere in the planning.

The question is in India, why are the leaders not able to plan for the future? The answer is certainly that each leader thinks only in terms of regional or parochial interests. Perhaps they are also under the impression that a vision cannot win the elections. But, who has tried, except for Rajiv Gandhi who came with a dream, but killed it soon after?

To continue with the example of the railways, each railway minister should study the history of the railways in the world, or if he has no time, just have a look at the development of railway in the United States. Even just watching western movies, he could certainly understand how the rail brings wealth. One day, a sleepy village of the middle of the desert with just a saloon, a church, and the sheriff's office becomes a town, which starts booming and growing into a large economic centre. Is it not the typical story of the West?

China has understood this long ago: not only does the rail bring a huge infrastructure expenditure, creates new jobs, removes the alienation of remote places and builds the foundation for prosperity, but it also helps the strategic interests of the nation. Railways integrate the people and bring wealth to a nation.

Mao Zedong, who was one of the greatest military strategists in world history, knew that one has to plan, prepare and strike when the right time comes. When he entered Tibet in October 1950, he of course, wanted to bring his revolution to the Roof of the World, but he also planned to protect his 'western border' (meaning the Indian border). A soon as he entered Lhasa, his Liberation Army began surveying and building a network of roads all over Tibet. While colonizing Tibet, he was bringing these roads to China's 'Western borders'.

And what were the wise Indian leaders doing? A sage once wrote:
God shall grow up while the wise men talk and sleep;
For man shall not know the coming till its hour;
And belief shall be not till the work is done.

In 1962, there was no question of God, but the poor jawans (without winter clothes or shoes) posted on the Namkha river in Tawang district of NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) discovered one morning in October, the Chinese troops 'crawling like ants' down the Thagla Ridge. The work was done and in India, nobody could believe it! Only 12 years had passed from the time Mao had planned it to the final execution.

Same thing, in Ladakh! One fine day in 1958, an Indian patrol discovered that there was a Chinese road built on the Indian soil. The fact that this road, linking the two newly acquired provinces of Tibet and Sinkiang and cutting through Ladakh, was the most strategic road for the defence of Chinese empire had not occurred to anyone in the Indian government.

Many years earlier, Sardar Patel, a doer with a vision had foreseen the scenario, but was told by an idealist Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: "There is far too much loose talk about China attacking and overrunning India. If we lose our sense of perspective and world strategy and give way to unreasoning fears, then any policy that we might have is likely to fail."

At that time, the fashion was to philosophise on the Five Great Principles.

Today, while the Indian leaders talk and sleep and quarrel, China continues to plan for the future. Last year, Chinese Railways Minister Fu Zhihuan had informed the prospective United States equipment suppliers in Washington, "With the majority of our manufacturers located in eastern China and most natural resources in the west, we need to greatly improve the capacity of our lines running east to west."

Like in the 1950s, a new 'Go West' campaign had started to promote the economic development of the remote regions of West (Tibet and Sinkiang) and 'to strengthen national defence.'

While these development plans are often used to promote Beijing's interests (like the destruction of the identity of the Tibetan people), the railway brings the possibility of rapid troop reinforcement close to the Indian border.

On July 26, the People's Daily announced that the construction of the main body of the tallest railway bridge on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau had been completed a few days earlier. This is part of the rail link between Golmud in Sinkiang and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The Sanchahe bridge is a technical feat: it is built at an altitude of 3,800 metres, is 690 metres in length, and 86 metres at its highest point.

The fact that this railway line is a great danger for India's strategic interests, as it precludes the closing of the railway loop between Tibet and Sinkiang in the years to come (which will see trains crossing the Aksai Chin plateau of Ladakh), did not seem to awaken any reaction from the Indian leaders.

Now, take the example of the 50-year-old Kashmir problem: India has been struggling for years to find a way to please the leaders in Srinagar and solve the tangle. Instead of trying to provide more autonomy to the Valley, which in any case does not help the problem of underdevelopment, unemployment or the discontent of the population, why can't the Central government plan for a railway line to Srinagar? In one stroke, it would provide jobs, bring investments, and ultimately wealth to the Valley.

Instead, leaders are trying to find some elusive autonomy formula that will please nobody except a few leaders lining their pockets. The problem for the rail alternative would be that Article 370 of the Constitution would have to be scrapped and investment from any corner of the country not only permitted, but also encouraged. Hurdles would appear, but with a steadfast vision and will, they could certainly be overcome.

A bolder initiative would be to build a railway line to Ladakh. Without doubt, it would take some time to study the feasibility of such project, but it would be ultimately bring incalculable benefits, first of all for the people of Ladakh who have been asking for a greater autonomy for a long time. Thupstan Chhewang, the Chairman of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was recently telling us: "We wanted that Ladakh should be directly administered by Delhi. [Fifty years ago] we already had an apprehension that Ladakh will be discriminated against by the Kashmiris and it has happened now for the past 40 years …once the Kashmir issue became an international issue, we have been used as scapegoats."

Even if this political problem could not be solved immediately, a better link to the rest of the country would certainly help in smoothing out a lot of bitterness and bring a tremendous economic boost to Ladakh.

But perhaps more importantly, it would strategically counter the Chinese roads (and tomorrow train) through the Aksai Chin.

India has two fronts in Ladakh and they are intimately linked. One is against Pakistan and the Kargil episode in 1999 has clearly brought out that the road between Srinagar and Leh cannot be considered as reliable in the future. The second front is with China in the Aksai Chin and Panggong Lake areas.

We should not forget that the Kargil exercise was most probably prompted by Musharraf to re-conquer the Siachen/Saltoro glacier. It is said that Musharraf commanded the commando regiment that was thrown out of the glacier by the Indian troops in 1984 and that he had sworn to take revenge. For China and Pakistan, the control of the glacier till the Karakoram Pass would have meant the control of the entire northern border of the Jammu & Kashmir state from Gilgit to Western Tibet. It would have made the Sinkiang-Tibet link absolutely secure for China and put Ladakh in a very dangerous strategic position.

A train to Ladakh would counter this threat by bringing the two closer to the rest of the country, but for this vision and will are necessary.

If a leader with a vision would decide tomorrow to bring the train to Leh, he would no doubt face difficulties, objections, and problems, but India needs dreams, boldness and action. If ten of such projects could be dreamt of, a few could take shape and it would no doubt change the image and the future of the nation.

If nothing is dreamt today, nothing will be planned tomorrow and the leaders will continue their endless small quarrels over parochial issues. How will India ever take her true place in the world?

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