News WrapGet Handpicked Stories from our editors directly to your mailbox

India and Pakistan need to learn lessons from Croatia and Ethiopia

This week has given India two lessons - first from the Croatian President at the World Cup Final, and second from the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Updated: Jul 27, 2018, 13:07 PM IST

India has become an inward-looking country. Or at least, its media is. Our prime-time debates have become tu-tu, main-main exchanges between party spokespersons, often offering no insights or perspectives on the issues being discussed. Sometimes, I think it is important to look at the larger world to understand what India can be, beyond the screaming matches that pass off these days for democratic discourse.

I found two such occasions last week. One was the FIFA World Cup final in which France beat Croatia, and the other is the dramatic turnaround in relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both Eritrea and Croatia became free nations in 1991.

I think both India, which has to lift itself above backward-looking politics, and Pakistan, which goes to polls later this month amid a tumultuous phase of ugly politics, can hope to learn lessons from the Balkans and the Horn of Africa.

Croatia lost to France in the World Cup, but by all accounts, it won hearts worldwide, thanks to its 50-year-old woman president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. With a population of only 4.2 million (roughly one-fourth of Delhi), Croatia became an independent nation during the bitter break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Croatia's ugly clashes with Serbia were among the key events of the break-up and the two neighbours continue to have frosty relations.

Ms Grabar-Kitarovic impressed the world last Sunday in the gap of just two hours, probably altering tourist plans on where affluent Indians may holiday next year (Croatia is a land of beaches, perched strategically close to Switzerland and Germany). But more important, the 50-year-old mother of two fired the world's imagination on what a national leader can be - a wonderful mix of informality, simplicity and imposing qualifications. The leader whose name is quite a mouthful for Indians is a butcher's daughter from a remote village but became an academically qualified Fulbright scholar studying at the George Washington University in the US. She has been Croatia's ambassador to the US, and is fluent in Croatian, English, Spanish and Portuguese. She paid from her pocket in 2010 to make up for a minor scandal when her husband used an official car for private purposes, and turned up this year for the World Cup on an economy class ticket of her own. She sportingly hugged every Croatian footballer after her team's defeat, leaving people wondering who really won the cup. 

Impressed with her credentials (and certainly not just by her good looks), I tweeted half in jest and off the cuff that India should invite her as the Republic Day guest, and not controversial US President Donald Trump. As I write this, that has more than 520 Retweets and 2,800 Likes, not to speak of welcome comments. An increasingly connected world looks at role models for a new age of democracy and good governance. When they see one, they cheer it!

Now, that is not to distract attention from the fact that Ms Grabar-Kitarovic is trying for re-election and belongs to a party that faces corruption charges. Nor can we deny that Serbs and Croats still share a legacy of mistrust. The Serbian view of Croats being collaborators of Hitler during World War II is one thing, while Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic himself stood accused of Hitler-style war crimes during the break-up of Yugoslavia. 

History can be confusing -- and often, cunning. That is why India and Pakistan, like Serbia and Croatia, have to be less confused and perhaps look at leaders who lead by examples and take them to a better future. Ms Grabar-Kitarovic has her grey sides as a fence-walking popular leader, but democracy and development call for healthy compromises.

That brings me to the Horn of Africa. Eritrea and Ethiopia have re-established diplomatic relations this month ending a state of war. Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 after a decades-long armed movement. A border war continued later, killing an estimated 80,000 people. But this month, there are dramatic reports of an outpouring of warmth between citizens of the two countries.

Notably, both Ethiopia and Eritrea love to have Indian teachers and university lecturers as they step up social and economic development. 

It is sad to see that India and Pakistan have stopped playing cricket or enjoy smooth cultural relations involving TV shows, musical concerts and movies. This defies rather than reflects a shared social history. 

Both the Croatian president's style and the thaw in the Horn of Africa hold lessons for India and Pakistan. Historical changes require forgetting some history and looking at the opportunities for prosperity and welfare in an age of democracy and development.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)