T Thomas: Who is my neighbour?

T Thomas: Who is my neighbour?

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 13, 2012 18:40 hrs

Many moons ago when I was a young manager in a large company, we had a very erudite and wise chairman. He combined the skills of communication, both oral and written, with an uncanny ability either to charm or to intimidate those who came in contact with him in the company as well as outside of it. He also took personal interest in promising managers by interacting with them and encouraging them in various ways.

Some of them became so successful that other companies poached them, and those managers themselves progressed in their new pastures probably faster than in our company mostly because the competition in their new pastures wasn’t of the same quality. As time went by and some of these renegade gentlemen became prominent themselves, a few of them began to make snide negative remarks about their erstwhile guru, who was my chairman. In my naïve concept of obligation I was quite upset about this apparent disloyalty.

One day I happened to express my rather critical views about the renegades to my chairman. He responded by telling a rather perverse but factually plausible explanation for this phenomenon. He said to me: “TT, whenever someone says or does something that may be harmful to me, I ask myself a question as to what are the good things I have done to this man that he is now doing this to me. You, as a young man, should learn that when you do something good for someone there is always a possibility that sooner or later some of them (not all) whom you helped would begin to do or say things against you. The reason could be that in his heart of hearts, the renegade resents the fact that his success has been partly due to your help and guidance. I hold this view and therefore I am not surprised by such behaviour, although I may be somewhat disappointed. But then life has to move on. There are all kinds of people in this world and one should not waste too much of one’s emotion on such behaviour by others.”

His words turned out to be prophetic in my own experience in later life, when the same phenomenon occurred — a few people whom you helped to a considerable extent turning out to be other then loyal or appreciative. Perhaps, as the older man told me, such behaviour is caused by the resentment of having been dependent on someone else for one’s own success.

The above philosophy can be extended to relationships between nations, especially in the Indian subcontinent. India, because of its size, spread and relative economic and military power, finds itself in the role of the chairman in this scenario.

Bangladesh was created by the action, support and collaboration which Indira Gandhi was bold enough to extend to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She did it openly, and despite threatening noises and moves by the Western powers led by the US. Today it is doubtful whether Bangladesh feels any special affinity to us. Sri Lanka is another case. Our affable, decent, modern-minded prime minister, who supported the aspirations of the Sinhalese people, was murdered by the resentful LTTE Tamilian group. In a sense Rajiv Gandhi sacrificed his life for Sri Lanka, our ties with whom are based on the ancient Buddhist culture. The recent visit to India by Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha demonstrated the possible scope for our countries coming closer. Yet Sri Lanka is wooing the Chinese to undertake major port and other infrastructural projects which have the potential to give them strategic control of sealanes and a base to attack India from the south. Sri Lanka and China have no common borders, cultural links or anything comparable to those that they have with India. Yet Sri Lanka is almost using China as a buffer against India. Is Sri Lanka another case of India’s good deeds leading to a negative reaction?

Even if that were the case, in my view India will be wiser to respond not with irritation or anger, but with even greater assistance to Sri Lanka. There are several areas where this can be done. To start with, education. This is an area which Sri Lankans value. While they a high level of literacy, they do not have university-level institutions of international repute. We have our IITs and IIMs, several of which are of international standard. We can offer to Sri Lanka a quota of seats and scholarships in the IITs and IIMs. This will be of benefit to both sides. The benefit to Sri Lankans is obvious. The benefit to India is that we will be creating a constituency of Sri Lankans who understand and appreciate India. Many of the Indians offered Fulbright scholarships after World War II by the US did extremely well, becoming an influential set of people who could influence polices in India with a greater appreciation of the US — acting as a counter to the red-tinted glasses of the Left.

The second area could be preferential trade agreements, whereby companies investing through Sri Lanka could be given some tax concessions in the same manner as we have done with Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands. Sri Lanka certainly is far closer to us than Mauritius or the BVI. And investor would find it much more attractive to come through Sri Lanka. Once the principle of having closer ties with Sri Lanka is accepted I am sure there will be several more areas where polices can be adopted which are of benefit to both countries.

To sum up, it is time India embarked on a serious and sustained charm offensive and chose a policy of sustained and imaginative cultivation of our neighbours, especially Sri Lanka. Today India can afford it, and Sri Lanka will appreciate and can utilise it. If we do not do this, the Chinese or some other countries (the oil-rich Arab states, perhaps) will do it and we as India would have lost an opportunity.

The title of this article is taken from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.The writer is a former chairman of Hindustan Lever

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