NEW DELHI - The India International Centre (IIC), the favourite haunt of seventy-something retired Indian technocrats, is a hive of activity notwithstanding its new five-star rival around the corner, the Indian Habitat Centre. The IIC's excellent library and eateries are where you will still run into India's movers and shakers. They are getting on, so they are shaking more than moving.
One such is the (former) Maharaja of Kashmir, Dr Karan Singh, who introduces himself to all Nepalis as the "jwai raja" of Nepal. Karan Babusahab was inaugurating a seminar on "Tradition, Culture and Modernity in the South Asian Context". His suggestion that we go beyond politics and help fashion institutions to cooperate in areas of environment, interfaith activities, education, media and information technology is worthy of attention at a time of extreme distrust and disinformation. About Pakistan, the ex-royal of Kashmir had this to say: "OK, it's difficult to be friends with so much bitterness all around. Doesn't matter. To begin with, let's agree not to be enemies at least."
Noble thoughts, and much as we'd all want to believe it, not likely to happen anytime soon. The only hope was for Track Two and the problem with parallel citizens' groups is that they are just too beholden to government. They are either still in the hope of getting state patronage and do not want to sabotage their chances, or if they already have it don't want to risk losing it. Our intellectuals prefer manufacturing apologies for the failure of the government, donors, or NGOs. The intellectual class in South Asia is an extension of the establishment, and nowhere is it truer than in India. Just look at the fear psychosis they have spread in the corridors of power in New Delhi regarding Nepal. One sample question this week from an Indian researcher that was fairly representative of the paranoia: "Are there ISI agents even at Pashupatinath Temple?"
Looking around the IIC seminar and at other parallel-SAARC events going on all over the subcontinent at any given time, I can't help wondering: How is it that Indian diplomats become the epitome of reason and conciliation only after they shed their posts? Like Hindu gods, their wrathful side is replaced by a benign demeanour, post-retirement.
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai is in India these days, and surprisingly, there are no journalists accompanying him-unless one can call Dr Narayan Khadka a scribe for writing the occasional column in Kantipur. Bhattarai is here primarily to accept the honorary doctorate to be conferred on him by the Banaras Hindu University. But he will also do what all very, very important Nepali visitors to India invariably do these days: get a darshan at Tirupati and pay respects to Sai Baba. Who knows, Kishunji may even be the proud receiver of a clock materialised out of thin air. (Girijababu got a gold watch from the Baba.)
The reception that our man in Delhi hosted in honour of Kishunji began an hour or so behind schedule thanks to the Royal Nepal Always Cancelled flight. The guests at the cocktail reception were the usual suspects: Chandrashekhar, Ram Krishna Hegde and few other hirsute has-beens of Indian socialism. Some of these politicians have ceased to matter so much that even rubbing shoulders with our own Kishunji makes their day. And Kishunji obliged willingly by chatting them up amidst gales of laughter. Prominent Nepalis spotted amidst the old world charm of the Barahkhamba Road residence of Ambassador Bhekh Bahadur Thapa included Chandani Joshi, Madan Upadhayay and Niranjan Koirala.
Then there was Meira Kumar, Joint Secretary "in charge of Nepal" at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. A stunner in Dhaka print sari and rhododendron-red cholo, Kumar has the self-assured air of someone who knows she is in control. I sought out NN Jha, the former diplomat who is convenor of the foreign policy cell of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party. A career diplomat seasoned by the Cold War years, Jha pretended to know nothing about the stalled SAARC process. More forthcoming was Shamma Jain, "in charge of SAARC" and colleague of Ms Kumar at the MEA. "What's the problem?" Shamma asked demurely. "Doctors are meeting, writers are talking, and intellectuals are getting together. The Summit will take place in due course of time when the environment is right." Shorn of diplomatese, what she was saying is: no Summit now. Why? 'Cos we say so. Kumar and Jain are the policy-framers of India's external relations, and they are two tough cookies. Keep an eye on them, Bhekh.
Meanwhile, across the room, Nepal's jwai sahab is desperately trying to put a fun spin to it all. "SAARC doesn't excite us any more," sighed the man whose one-time riyasat is the main cause behind Indo-Pak confrontation. "But we do need something like it. And since it's already there, why not revitalise it?"
Cynical as we may be about these South Asian talk fests, they need to keep happening, for no other reason than that it is one of the last remaining places where an Indian and Pakistani can meet and talk at a people-like-us level. Without junkets like these, South Asia would drift even further apart.