John the Baptist in India
Jan. 10 2002 2:53 PM

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Tony Blair just does not look right for India. Instead of a stiff upper lip, he has a thrusting jaw. Instead of playing cricket, he plays the guitar. John Major, his prime ministerial predecessor, seemed much more British to us Indians. His upper lip, whether stiff or not, was at least unusually pronounced, and he actually played cricket. He was also a self-effacing man, as the British are supposed to be. On his last visit to India, he talked a bit about British industry, enjoyed the sun, and then went home. He did not want to change the world.

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Cherie Blair began her Indian sojourn in Bangalore on a Mother Teresa note, sharing lunch with deprived children. There was a time when Indians hid the family jewels when they invited the Viceroy and Vicereine to dinner, but Cherie may have taken her austerity too far. She compensated a bit by visiting an ornate temple in the afternoon, getting a massage in the evening, and buying a dress at a bazaar for a bargain $20. This is far more the kind of thing we want visitors to do. The priests of the temple she visited were grateful, because the place got cleaned up. Twenty municipal employees worked for two days to make it ready for her. It has never been so clean in its history.

Mr Blair, of course, has a second job to do, as ambassador of George Bush. India welcomed him as a sort of John the Baptist. President Bush is due in the spring, if he has managed to find Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden by then. The Americans have been distributing leaflets in Afghanistan showing Osama (in a digitally altered picture) in a suit and horribly knotted tie, with the kind of shave and hairstyle that is advertised in the windows of small-town barber shops all across the subcontinent. It is doubtful if anyone could recognise him without his beard.

Tony Blair is a public-spirited man. On his first day in Bangalore, he missed an appointment to play tennis with the suave chief minister of the province of Karnataka, S.M. Krishna. Mr Krishna, who can speak English better than Peter Sellers and is president of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association, waited in vain, in a track suit, for Mr Blair to arrive at the Bangalore Club. He got a message that the British Prime Minister was sorry to stand him up, but that he did not want to snarl up the traffic by making another car journey through the city. Those who know the Bangalore traffic will appreciate that this was very considerate of Mr Blair. Word was passed out to a journalist or two, through the spin doctors, that the Prime Minister was busy on the telephone, talking to the world.

He may, in fact, have actually spoken to the White House, for Mr Blair had come to save the subcontinent from catastrophe and was taking his task seriously. It is even possible that he may have succeeded in this purpose, if by luck as much as by design. For by the time he left, the temperature had dropped to less frightening levels. The Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, had even shaken hands at a regional summit in Kathmandu. Mr. Vajpayee later dismissed this gesture as a mere courtesy, but it is difficult to convey the relief that this rare example of minimal courtesy between the two countries caused throughout the subcontinent.

The stand-off between India and Pakistan has been taken very seriously by both America and Britain, who do not want a second war to interfere with theirs in Afghanistan, particularly when it has been going so well. At the very least, Tony Blair conveyed India's uncompromising mood to his friends in the White House, and the Bush administration leaned on Pakistan to take action against terrorists on its soil. It is even now rumoured that Pakistan may do the unthinkable and actually hand over some of the most wanted men on India's terrorist list. Mr Blair certainly understands the subcontinent better than the emissaries America has sent. He said things in India that sounded good in Pakistan (for instance, that Pakistan had a strong case on Kashmir) and did the opposite in Pakistan (for instance, that India had a strong case on terrorism). This may be the best way of handling the subcontinent.

M.J. Akbar is a columnist in India and the publisher of a national daily newspaper, The Asian Age.

You can e-mail the editors of Slate UK at editors_slateuk@hotmail.com.

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