Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
MAHATHIR Mohammad is among the greats of the post-colonial period in Asia. In the case of India and Pakistan, where the leaders who took over from the British failed to ensure a high growth rate and acceptable social indices. Mahathir ensured that Malaysia became a moderately prosperous country, which today has a much higher per capita income than the South Asian countries. Although he was often critical of the manner in which colonial states exploited the territories they controlled, this did not prevent him from associating Malaysia closely with Europe and the US, to the economic advantage of both. Unlike in so many other newly liberated countries, where corruption remained endemic, only difference being the skin colour of those who were doing the looting, Malaysia had a relatively clean govt so long as Mahathir was in charge.
This changed after Najib Razak took over, for the new Prime Minister believed that the Malay majority in Malaysia would always support the UMNO rather than opt for parties that depended on the votes of the Indian and Chinese communities. In Mahathir Mohammad, he met his match, for the brilliant and tenacious doctor of medicine was the originator of the “Bumiputra” laws and practices that from the inception of the country have ensured primacy of opportunity to the Muslim Malays over Hindu Indians and Buddhist Chinese, even though the Chinese have emerged as the most important component of business in Malaysia, the way they have in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand as well. At the same time, Mahathir sought to integrate his neighbours through ASEAN, a group that India unwisely opted to stay out of when it was formed, among the numerous geopolitical errors committed by those who led India in the decades after August 15,1947.
When it became a choice between Mahathir and Razak, voters of Malay descent were confident that the former would protect their interests, and voted for him in sufficient numbers to topple UMNO from power, to the shock of Najib Razak. Unlike Narendra Modi, who till now has adopted a largely absent accountability policy towards those who led the 2004-2014 United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Mahathir immediately blocked Razak from travelling abroad, perhaps never to return, given the wealth that the former Prime Minister and his friends have amassed. Although Modi has given several verbal darts against the UPA leadership, in practice not even a First Information Report has been filed by the police against any top UPA leader. Only the son of former Finance Minister Chidambaram was briefly arrested, that too over a petty case involving a sum below a million dollars, small change for South Asian leaders, who deal in the billions of dollars.
Unlike Modi, Mahathir has moved against the UMNO leadership from the start, beginning with Razak, aware that he has to demonstrate to the Malaysian voters both that the former ruling party was corrupt and that he as the new Head of Government has the will and the ability to punish them for such a betrayal of the public trust. At 92,Mahathir is still fully alert in both mind and body, and is clearly the architect of the victory his alliance has just scored. However, those in Anwar Ibrahim’s party would like the public to believe that it was the former Deputy Prime Minister who was responsible for the defeat of Najib Razak. While Mahathir has released Anwar from prison (to which he was sent earlier by Mahathir himself), there will certainly develop tensions and fault lines between the two individuals. Anwar will not be able to forget that it was Mahathir who was responsible for his downfall, while the new Prime Minister of Malaysia understands that he needs at least three years ( if not five) to ensure that his leadership style and intellectual prowess ensures change on the scale sought by the Malaysian voter. Mahathir brought Malaysia into the 20th century and he needs time to bring his country firmly into the 21st century at a time when Najib Razak was trying to make Malaysia go the South Asia way of corruption and economic mismanagement accompanied by bravado and bombast.
Nelson Mandela was a much admired figure for his absence of anger consequential to the decades he spent in prison just for wanting his people to be freed from racial tyranny. However, during his five years as President, the pace of genuine change in South Africa was slow. In the same way, Jawaharlal Nehru may have spent years in prison thanks to the British, but he presided over an economy that limped rather than ran. The private sector in India shrivelled into a midget compared to global giants, while in both Japan and South Korea (where private enterprise from 1945 till the 1950s was much below the levels of their counterparts in India) governments ensured that Japanese and later South Korean companies became world beaters, exactly the way the Chinese Communist Party is ensuring that Chinese companies are beginning to dominate the global space in several fields.
Already it is more Anwar Ibrahim than Mahathir Mohammad who is being interviewed by media from the US and the EU, the latter being aware of the strong feelings that Mahathir has against the way in which a proud continent was reduced to penury by European domination. Already Anwar’s followers are seeking the early retirement of Mahathir and his replacement by their hero, who has just been freed from prison thanks to the very individual who first put him there. The fact is that Malaysia elected Mahathir Mogammad and not Anwar Ibrahim to power. And that Prime Minister Mahathir needs time to clear away the rot that has crept into the state maschinery because of UMNO corruption under Razak and his intimates. What Anwar Ibrahim needs is to put his ambition in check and give Mahathir three or even five years before stepping forward as his successor. His previous downfall was because he was over eager to take over from Mahathir. Anwar should not repeat this mistake by constantly pressurizing Mahathir to step down well before his 5-year term ends.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.