We should focus on the inked papers, determinants and agreements that fructify or don’t, pursuant to Trump’s visit and not on ‘walls’ which are of little consequence in policy

by Bhopinder Singh

Walls” and the US President Donald Trump seem to have some sticky fixation that goes beyond the contentious Mexico-US border “wall”, the cost of building which would be about $25 billion. The recent case is the much humbler 400-metre-long and seven-feet high wall in Ahmedabad. Trump’s visit to this city has led to an estimated drain of `100 crore. The said amount will be spent on resurfacing and constructing new roads, on security imperatives, for transport and refreshments of over 1,00,000 guests in the “world’s largest stadium”, transplanting trees, flower arrangements, cultural extravaganza as also the “contentious” wall-column that seems to have caught public attention for its ostensible purpose.

Clearly, this wall-column hides a slum cluster of some 800 families that dot the unavoidable road stretch — from the airport to the main venue. It does have some security angle, given the heavy population density along the road, which typically necessitates a smooth passage for the presidential entourage. But it is essentially a “beautification” move that is neither unique to India nor necessarily unwarranted in the context of sprucing any location in preparation of such events. It is certainly a sad reflection of the reality that besets any urban dwelling. However, the efforts towards putting forth a “picture-perfect” view is par for course in any civic engagement.

The Government cannot be faulted for projecting a certain ambience and operational flawlessness, especially as the event is aimed to enhance “magnificence” of an emerging India (with the inauguration of the “World's Largest Stadium). Putting the best foot forward in terms of visuals is the norm, not the exception. But it certainly is tantamount to glossing over some reality that always lurks in the midst of any city, be it Ahmedabad, New Delhi or even Washington, DC. State visits are necessarily and deliberately over-sanitised and bedecked from all aspects of the diverse reality that always exists in proximity. The majestic drive from the Rashtrapati Bhawan to the splendorous Janpath, all the way up to the India Gate, or even to other parts of Lutyens Delhi, does not reflect the socio-economic diversity, reality and depravity of some other parts of the capital that is spared the cavalcade of such dignitaries.

The recent phenomenon initiated by the Modi Government of showcasing different cities across the country (beyond Delhi) is novel as it willy-nilly facilitates a modicum of development therein. Many cities have benefitted from the spotlight — be it Varanasi during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit or Chennai, which hosted Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. Ahmedabad, which had previously hosted Xi and is again prepping for the next high-profile foreign visit, may be benefitting disproportionately from such visits along with the Prime Minister’s political constituency of Varanasi. But again, as the son-of-soil of Gujarat and the “people’s representative” of Varanasi, he thought he is entitled to that bias.

Similar “walls” had come up at various places in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. China had strategically used this occasion to announce its “arrival” on the global scale. At that time, the Chinese had spent over $130 million to just restore and paint their building-temple complexes that dotted the five-mile axis on the main Olympic zone. Much later, Rio de Janeiro had to face much criticism for its “walls of shame” that sprung up to divide the shiny new Olympic city in 2016 from the typical Rio de Janeiro shanties that populated the city. A five mile long highway from the airport was covered with a 10 feet “wall” that was painted with welcoming murals. Everyone knew that it covered the inequities that beset the Brazilian reality.

Later, activists derided such moves as Potemkin displays and used the facade afforded by such “walls” to post expressions of cynicism and revolt against the Government. But then, the alternative of leaving the reality in its naked sores is, perhaps, equally untenable and unhelpful, considering the larger stakes and ambitions involved in hosting such events.

The Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi in 2010 had led to thick bamboo “curtains” being planted around squalid clusters. Beyond the political blame-game, the event selectively and successfully highlighted New Delhi’s gleaming new airport, swanky metro, wide roads with streetlights — an important infrastructural change that did alter the face and perception of the city.

In India, outside Delhi, the architectural development and approach of the city centre from the airport is such that it would entail many improvisations, sprucing up and even the inevitable “walls” from an aesthetic, practical and security perspective. A lot of public emotions is unnecessarily raked with debates on such “walls”, which could be more meaningfully directed at the more substantive part of the visit ie, the agreements, compromises and exchanges that take place, which have a long-term impact in affecting people’s lives.

While there can never be a universally-agreed formula to determine how much is “too much” on such “walls,” common sense suggests that an element of beautification and related requirements does require a semblance of “cover-up.” On the contrary, the public eye on the ball should remain focussed of the inked papers, determinants and agreements (with Trump, even disagreements) that fructify or don’t, pursuant to this visit. Puerile debate and passion on “walls” have a tendency to hijack the larger narrative at stake.

It is, perhaps, more pertinent to criticise the waste-of-moment captured in the famous tea ceremony on the swings on the banks of Sabarmati in Ahmedabad when Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted Xi, when at that very moment, the People Liberation Army (PLA) was involved in a face-off with the Indian armed forces at the border. Charm offensives have limited “utility” and the classical Atithi Devo Bhava (Guest is God) has very limited resonance with hard-nosed businessmen like Trump or Xi.

Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (India and China are brothers) of the 1950s is a lesson not to be forgotten as is the memory of the US Naval fleet sailing into the Bay of Bengal in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The minor “walls” in 2020, though not very elegant, ought not to be the substantive concern of the day.

The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands