Sunday, June 21, 2015

Who has seen Zhang Dejiang?

Zhang and President Mukherjee
The Indian media is a strange creature. It spends its time and energy on obsessions; every few days, it focuses on a new one while wearing blinkers for everything else. But even when it ignores ‘important’ news, nobody seems too much disturbed, as long as there is a good cricket ingredient and some spicy masala.
Last week, it was the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj’s ‘chance’ to make the headlines; the Everest could have change place (and it did, moving a few centimeters inside Tibet), nobody was bothered.
Of course, cricket is the national game and it has to prime over all other national and international issues. With the foreign minister linked with a latest cricketgate, other information had no chance to make it on the TV plateaus or on the first page of the ‘national’ press (these days, page 1 often becomes page 3 or 5, thanks to giant advertisements for e-commerce or attractive investments).
Imagine my surprise as a China watcher, when one morning earlier this week, I found in my mailbox, a communique of the Public Information Bureau (PIB) announcing that an all-powerful member of the Standing Committee Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the previous day.
Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, had called on Mr. Modi, said the PIB.
Zhang is not an ordinary Chinese, he is third most powerful person in the Middle Kingdom; he is one of the 7 ‘emperors’ ruling a country which everyone fears, (though few will say it openly).
This powerful personage was in Delhi (and later in Mumbai) and nobody seems to have known about it. Was Mr Zhang not as important as LaMoGate? Probably!
Now, remember when Middle Kingdom No 2, Premier Li Keqiang, came to Delhi in May 2013. The press went wild for several weeks before. It is true, some People’s Liberation Army’s jawans had come uninvited and were camping in the desolate Depsang Plains of Ladakh; this was really irritating. But Mr. Li’s visit was so important that the then Indian Foreign Minister ran to Beijing to beg the Premier to come to Delhi.
Then in 2014, ‘Emperor No 1’ came. When Xi Jinping landed at Ahmedabad in September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was determined to give him and his beautiful wife Peng Liyuan, a genuine taste of ModiLand. The two leaders took a stroll down the picturesque Sabarmati riverfront and sat on a traditional Gujarati swing. This time again, the masala came from the remote Chumur area of South Ladakh where 1,500 PLA men crossed the ‘undefined’ LAC; they were ready to set up camp when India decided to send 2,000 Indian jawans to push them away. They eventually did. Media coverage lasted for weeks.
This time Communist Boss No 3 came and went and who noticed?
Hardly anybody!
On June 15, the Prime Minister's Office merely reported, via the PIB, that Mr Zhang called on him on that day; of course, the Prime Minister “warmly recalled his meeting with the NPC’s Chairman in Beijing on 15 May 2015”.
Zhang’s visit was just termed a ‘parliamentary exchange’, though Mr Modi acknowledged that this was ‘an important pillar of the bilateral relationship’. The Indian Prime Minister stressed the need to broaden the foundation of India-China relations by promoting exchanges between State-level legislatures as well. The fact remains that Zhang’s visit did not get the coverage it should have got in the Indian media.
Even the MEA was silent (though Syed Akbaruddin or his successor, Vikas Swarup are known to be amongst the quickest twitterers in India); this time, not a single tweet; blank. Where was the MEA? Fending for its minister? Not even.
As oftentimes, the PIB communique remained vague and dis not tell us what was really discussed. A new proposal for the LAC in Ladakh? An alternative to the stapled visas for Arunachalis or Kashmiris? The ‘peaceful’ spread of the PLA Navy on the oceans of the planet? The new route for the Kailash yatra, flagged off by the foreign minister herself? We will have to wait at least 50 years to read the declassified files.
Zhang Dejiang just endorsed the Prime Minister’s views that the 21st Century is the Asian Century and the future of the continent will depend on what India and China achieve individually and jointly.
Both leaders emphasized the importance of promoting investment, trade, tourism and people to people ties, and enhancing strategic communication and coordination, they even expressed their appreciation for the new interest in India’s and China’s ancient cultural and ‘spiritual’ ties, citing the joint Yoga Tai-Chi demonstration witnessed by Prime Minister Modi and Premier Li in Beijing.
Why waste such a high-level visit for such banalities?
I asked many journalist friends, but nobody knew anything about the visit.
But being persistent, I finally got to know what had happened while scanning the Chinese press. Mr Zhang’s visit lasted four days. It was a ‘friendly’ visit at the invitation of the Vice President and the Lok Sabha’s Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan. It was the first trip in India of a NPC’s Chairman in 14 years.
Xinhua reported (with nice photos) that Mr. Zhang met with Vice President Ansari the same day that he met the Prime Minister. They called for strengthening cooperation between legislative bodies of China and India.
During his meetings with Chairpersons of the Indian Houses, Mr Zhang said that he wanted to “upgrade the level and improve the quality of the current cooperation between the legislative bodies of the two countries.” He suggested that the two sides should carry out closer exchanges.
Mr Zhang also met President Pranab Mukherjee to whom he conveyed the cordial greeting of President Xi. He told the Indian President that “China and India have thousands of years of friendly exchanges and a history of mutual learning and benefiting from each other's culture” and pointed out that India and China are not only the two biggest developing countries, but also the two most dynamic market economies in the world. He added: “The two countries should join hands to realize goals for peaceful development, cooperative development and inclusive development, to benefit the 2.5 billion people of the two countries."
In other words, the usual stuff, but it is always good when it is reiterated at the highest level.
Pranab Mukherjee told him that India always lays great importance to developing good, friendly, neighborly relations with China.
Later, Mr Zhang went to Mumbai where he met the Governor and the Chief Minister.
Has not India missed a chance to convey that everything is not rosy in the bilateral relations, especially on the border issue?
Why was the MEA nowhere to be seen? Even the South Block twitters had fallen silent? Why did India loose such an opportunity to convey to this powerful Chinese politician, its position on several vexed issues? Why was the Indian public not informed?
As for the media, could it not have dropped the cricket scams for a day and covered the visit, asking the right questions?
The media need not worry, there will be more cricket scams to cover in the future.

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