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Modi ditches Dalai Lama to woo China : Rajeev Sharma

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Once upon a time, the Dalai Lama, the supreme religious leader of the Tibetans, used to be a feted figure and a trump card in India’s hands vis a vis China. He has ceased to be both now.

This was the template of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first tenure (2014-19) and the situation seems well set to continue during Modi 2.0 as well.

The humbling truth and the writing on the wall for the Tibetan government-in-exile in India is that it has gone past the sell-by-date in Modi’s scheme of things. A firm indication to this effect was available on May 30 when none from the Tibetan government-in-exile was invited for Modi’s swearing in, like none was invited for Modi’s inauguration in 2014 as well.

But then in 2014 it could have been an aberration or an experiment, or perhaps an oversight. But the same template getting repeated in 2019 has a loud and clear message for the 140,000 Tibetan community living in exile in India: that it’s neither an aberration nor an experiment, nor an oversight any longer. It’s actually a policy decision of the Modi government wherein the Tibetans have been expended for the sake of better relations with China.

In other words, the message from the Modi dispensation is that improving bilateral ties with China is a far higher priority than the Tibetan government-in-exile which has become more like an albatross round India’s neck. Whether it is a sound foreign policy move or not is not relevant or material right now. What matters most in the Modi dispensation is that China gets a decisive upper hand in the Indian scheme of things vis a vis the Tibetan government-in-exile or Tibetans themselves.

The reasons why the Dalai Lama’s stock has fallen are two-fold:

One, the 84-year-old Dalai Lama is in a precarious health and is fighting terminal the stage prostate cancer for at least a couple of years, something which I have reported several times with graphic detail which has been hotly denied by the Dalai Lama Establishment.

Two, he’s engaged in secret negotiations with China for a three-week pilgrimage to his birthplace Tibet, in return for the Chinese pre-condition that he announces the Karmapa as his successor as soon as possible. To seal this deal, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) president Lobsang Sangay is currently touring the United States and Canada. However, it’s another matter that relations between the Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay are frigid and even inimical.

But the hard fact remains that Sangay is playing his own politics while the Dalai Lama only wishes to visit his birthplace Tibet before he dies.

But still there are many twists in this tale. Or shall we say there is many a slip between the cup and the lip as far as the Dalai Lama is concerned.

The most important predicament being faced by the Dalai Lama and his closest aides and advisors is the supreme religious leader’s health. His health has deteriorated to such an extent that he finds movement within his Dharamsala campus difficult and has to be assisted by several aides all the time. So much so that the Dalai Lama now finds it difficult to travel to even southern India, leave aside an overseas trip which requires a modicum of physical fitness.

For the first time in the history of the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Dalai Lama establishment carried out a mock emergency evacuation drill for transporting the Dalai Lama from Dharamsala to the Kangra-based Dr Rajendra Prasad Government Medical College, either by road or by chopper. As usual, the Dalai Lama establishment has denied such reports as mere speculation. But there is no smoke without fire.

The million dollar question is that even if the Lobsang Sangay-brokered deal with China were to be finalized, will the old man be able to take the rigour of a foreign travel of five hours or more? But the Dalai Lama is determined to pull off such a trip. He’s banking on yet another Long Life Prayers ritual for him in July, even though such events have been held in the recent past without producing any discernible and positive change in his health.

This brings us to the obvious question: why then should he swallow the bitter pill of announcing the Karmapa as his successor even though he doesn’t have any trust in the Karmapa and looks upon him as a Chinese stooge?

Well, we will get to know the answer in a few weeks. But the fact remains that the Modi government is well aware of the Dalai Lama’s plans and that’s why the Modi dispensation has been playing ball with China at the expense of the Dalai Lama.

This was unthinkable during the previous Indian governments. But the Modi regime has decided to get rid of this albatross round its neck to mend relations with China.

(Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi based strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha)

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