Saturday, March 22, 2008

Taking India’s “Look East” rhetoric seriously: The need to focus on politics in other parts of Asia

Earlier today, the people of Taiwan voted in the latest round of their nation’s Presidential elections, and a couple of hours ago, it was announced that the KMT nominee, Ma-Ying-jou, has been declared elected. (Click here for the BBC report). The Indian press barely covered what is now regarded as a crucial election in Taiwan. While the Indian media assiduously follows every small twist and turn in the US democratic primaries (we are still quite a few months away from the actual Presidential elections), it is almost embarrassing how significant political events far closer home are neglected. People in the rest of the world are talking about this being ‘the Asian century’ but the mainstream media in India seems determined to maintain its North America-cum-Eurocentric focus.

The recent elections in Malaysia are being described as epochal, but even this garnered only a few stories in the Indian press, where the main point of interest seemed to hinge on the fate of the Indian minority in Malaysia. Fortunately, there are exceptions to this general trend. One such piece appeared in the Hindu recently, and provides a decent overview of significant political developments in South east Asia in the recent past.

The UPA government does seem to take its “Look East” policy seriously, and India’s involvement with regional groupings such as ASEAN has been visibly increased in recent years. Perhaps the rest of the nation, led by the mainstream media, needs to take these shifts more seriously. In years to come, India's economic and foreign policy initiatives are far more likely to be affected by factors within Asia. In order to be able to face upto these challenges, it is essential that more attention be focused on basic issues such as the nature of democratic politics in the rest of Asia. Even highly educated Indians are completely unaware of what the acronyms KMT, BN, stand for, let alone being aware of the nuances of issues such as the exact nature of tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, or the basis of friction between different ethnic groupings and parties within countries such as Malaysia. Yet, this same group of Indians is probably following the upcoming democratic primary in Pennsylvania with a zeal unmatched by most Americans.

For an earlier generation of Indians, being 'cosmopolitan' meant being able to discuss the details of domestic politics in the UK and the US. Given the realities of the world we live in, this will no longer suffice. We need to take the Asian component of our identity more seriously. A good start would be to educate ourselves about the nature of democratic politics in Asia, using elections as a hook to know more about domestic politics in different countries.
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