ONE can hardly resist the temptation of alluding to the age-old art of treading on toes in this epoch when everything on this blessed planet has been turned on its head. Who is treading on whose toes and with what results only time will tell. The fact remains that, despite the state of universal panic brought on by the Pandemic, the so-called big powers of this planet have not abandoned this age-old art. It would perhaps be expedient to take time out, look back, and devote one’s undivided attention to the ‘coarse art’ in question. There was a time (pre-pre nine/eleven?) when the high and mighty of this blessed land took delight in this pastime. This was particularly true of those who delighted in dabbling in the art of ‘diplomacy’ or whatever it was known as in those days of somewhat loose habits. Of course that good old time is no more. Things have moved on. One lives and learns. In the process, several little lessons to be learnt come one’s way, if only one pays a bit of attention.
Coming to brass-tacks, one wonders if the gentle reader has come to notice that any ‘sane individual’ spends half of his/her life in either avoiding treading on other persons’ toes or, alternatively, in saving his/her own toes from being trod on. This, however, is not all! A good part of the remaining half is spent on living down the after-effects of having (inadvertently?) trod on some (tender) toes, or the other way around. On the wider canvas, the same can be said of nations and nation states. Treading on toes is as old as history itself. Persons of all stations and divers dispositions have over the ages lost their heads over it – and not just figuratively. Treading on toes is the bane of all societies. Most disputes, machinations and vendettas have their origins in an incident or incidents of treading on toes in the figurative sense.
Of course, it is important to pinpoint who does the treading and whose toes are being trod on. One cannot afford to be non-discriminatory when it comes to toes. There are toes and there are toes! Oriental societies such as ours are particularly sensitive. Treading on toes at times becomes a matter of family (national) honour, in a manner of speaking. Our feudal lords (not to talk of lords not so feudal) have peculiar sensitivities about their toes being trod on by the small fry. Come to think of it, in this age of globalization, deliberate treading on toes appears to have caught on like an epidemic. A good many statements issued by public figures, for instance, appear to be aimed figuratively at someone’s ‘toes’. Newspapers are full of them. The owners of the toes on the receiving end, quite naturally, consider it their duty to retaliate in kind; and so the battle is joined. Several public figures, needless to add, have become past masters at this game of sorts. World history would not be what it is today, if only known personalities and nations had paid a bit more attention, betimes, to the toes they were treading on. In fact, one could safely venture farther afield and opine that a little research into this subject could well sift this out as the single most significant cause of the outbreak of armed conflicts. Why go far; a cursory glance at the recent military adventures of the powers-that-be, and the chain of events they unleashed, should be enough to provide ample food for thought.
The art of international diplomacy has a lot to do with how deft an entity is at leaving the wrong kind of toes alone. Successful diplomacy can aptly be defined as the ability to cross a minefield of sensitive toes and emerge on the other side without having trod on any. About our own diplomacy, the less said the better. If anything, we appear to specialize in treading on toes; and the wrong ones at that. Add to that our well-known foot-dragging in protecting our own toes from being trod on and you have the whole picture! There are times when our diplomacy – our own sore toes notwithstanding – actually goes through a whole series of treading on (sensitive) toes, interspersed occasionally, for good measure, by the dropping of an almighty classical clanger. Who said our brand of diplomacy is not exciting? On another note, our liberal brigade appears to have perfected treading on toes into something of a fine art form. Life would be a lot simpler (though perhaps not as exciting) if only people generally held on to the dictum that toes are a part of the anatomy just not intended for being trod on. But how exiting would such a state of affairs be? One realizes that this would take the spice out of life, leaving it dull and dreary. How many persons would wish to peruse the morning papers with all the juicy bits missing?
It would be too much to hope, perhaps, that our public figures would leave one another’s toes alone. Such nasty habits die hard. What can be accomplished, though, is in the fields of diplomacy and international relations. Our statements in the domain of foreign affairs could be honed in such a fashion as not to give a handle to our critics to discover a chink in our armour. The tendency to shoot from the hip (a habit we have apparently borrowed from our friends, the Americans) will need to be shed in favour of a more circumspect approach towards sensitive issues. For the time being, the moot point is how to side step the Super-power juggernaut! Our diplomatic toes may well be in for an excruciatingly painful experience and that too in a not too distant a future!
— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.