Lands ahoy to the east

Narendra Modi isn't taking a boat or a battleship from Port Blair to Sabang in Sumatra. He will fly to Jakarta on May 29.

Don't know whose bright idea it had been—to send Modi on a ship from the Andamans to Sabang, where the Indonesians are offering us a deep sea port which can berth submarines. A pleasant cruise it would have been for the Prime Minister with a little roll-and-pitch, and a jolt for the Chinese.

Hardly had the idea been mooted from the foreign office when it was vetoed in the PMO. Modi would rather drown in the Andaman Sea than be accused of imitating Jawaharlal Nehru. When friend Sukarno had invited him to Indonesia as his first state guest after Independence, Nehru sailed there on battleship INS Delhi with two destroyers in escort.

A little known aside to the story is that the visit had almost ended in disaster. Someone had, by mistake, loaded live ammunition in the Dutch warship's guns that were fired in welcome salute. The Dutch officers, who had given the ship as a parting gift to their former colony on independence, had a tough time calling 'ceasefire', and then censoring the news from the next day's newspapers. Thankfully, the guests and the Indian press didn't know. They were all at sea, literally.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Modi isn't taking such risks. He will fly to Jakarta, shake hands with President Joko Widodo, fly kites in Bali (the Balinese are crazy about kites as are Gujaratis), pray at the Prambanan Hindu temple, visit the Borobudur Buddhist shrine, perhaps join the President at a Ramadan iftaar, and discuss how to build a martime security architecture to counter terrorists, pirates and the Chinese. Widodo has signed in on China's Belt and Road Initiative, but finds himself in belts and knots while implemeting the projects.

Modi has been making waves in maritime diplomacy. He has got Singapore lend their docks to our warships; persuaded the Seyschelles to let us build sea-scanning radars on their coast and lease their Assumption Island to our Navy; got Oman to lend us land for building a naval base; smooth-talked the French into letting our warships berth in their Reunion Islands; and charmed Madagascar into lending us Agalega island for building naval rigs. There is already a logistics deal with the US which gives us access to Diego Garcia. Sabang, where Netaji Bose had landed on a Japanese submarine in 1943, is only the latest catch from the sea. A submarine berth there should take care of much of our concerns in the eastern seas.

We don't realise how close Indonesia is. If he were sailing, Modi would have had a short 90-nautical mile cruise, as the albatross flies. But the strategic gulf between India and Indonesia had been widening since the Bandung bonding days of Nehru and Sukarno. By the sixties, the junta that controlled Sukarno had been befriended by the Chinese and Pakistanis. So much so that they threatened to invade the Andamans in 1965 when we were waging a war with Pakistan.

We aren't yet alive to threats from the east. The Andamans had fallen to the Japanese in World War II, though we might draw patriotic comfort by saying that Bose was part of the conquering army. But the gravestones of Kohima and Imphal would tell us another story of how close we came to be conquered from the east in the 20th century.

Modi's Act East, a muscular version of Look East, should mend those chinks.

TAILPIECE: The Navy has a custom of holding a mock trial in Varuna's court (Neptune's in European navies) of the skipper when a ship crosses the equator. Preposterous charges are raised, and in the end a Varuna's Certificate is handed to the 'accused'. Nehru was tried on his voyage to Indonesia for being a workaholic and for having too many telephones on his desk.