Dalai Lama lacked political skill to achieve his Tibet dream

Written by: Shubham Ghosh

The 14th Dalai Lama turns 77. And who's happier? Of course, China.

Is the holy institution or the man in it, is of much relevance today? One of the greatest spiritual leaders in the history of the world, the Dalai Lama has not been successful as a political force. A veteran foreign correspondent of a US-based newspaper had once rightly said that the Dalai undoubtedly is a charismatic leader but at the same time, is a poor political strategist.

Dalai Lama

He had shown great courage in taking on one of the most powerful states in the world but instead of pressing for an unorthodox diplomacy of back-channel talks with the Chinese authorities to achieve his political end, the Dalai chose a road which did not and would never have given him the desired results. Just engaging in fruitless talks with Beijing and canvassing support for a pro-Tibet idealist movement actually led to nowhere for the leader. "The Hollywood strategy just did not work for the Dalai Lama," experts said.

The Dalai Lama remains a symbol of great faith for the Tibetans even as speculations are rife that after Tenzin Gyatso, there could not be a successor for the institution and Beijing is just waiting for the road to end. It might name a docile successor which would remain loyal to its order once Gyatso becomes history.

US too move away

That the Dalai Lama has been losing its relevance, at least among the pragmatists, became evident in 2009 when Barack Obama, who had just taken over the US Presidency then, declined to meet the spiritual leader, putting his idealist supporters quite in a shock. But Obama knew very well that keeping good terms with China was more important for geopolitical and economic reasons rather than extending ideological support to the Dalai Lama. Such a stance, a superpower and a democratic state like the USA became increasingly evident since the 2008 financial crisis for Washington had understood that China would play an important role to global economic reality and to make the latter work in a responsible manner, the US leadership could not afford to take an anti-China stance for an issue like Tibet.

Tibet is very important for China

National unity has been a central idea of China's national identity. The Chinese authorities leave no stone unturned to ensure that the internal unity of the country remains unharmed and practice regular shuffling of the country's military district chiefs and ensure that no form of regional or economic sentiment, which could endanger the country's territorial integrity, ever emerges. It is hence no wonder that Beijing harbours special concern for Tibet, a region inhabited by ethnic minorities and historically controversial.

The Tibetans have not accepted the Chinese authority and have protested demanding independence of 'Greater Tibet', which would not only comprise autonomous regions of Tibet but also the neighbouring Chinese territories that were inhabited by Tibetans.

In 2008, a year before the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Tibetan protesters started a massive agitation to draw the world's attention for that year's Olympics was hosted by Beijing and the latter softened its stand temporarily to let the storm pass. But the Tibetans, who had Dalai Lama's envoys to talk with Beijing, did not witness any substantial happening for they were divided on specific points to speak on.

Ideas lacked pragmatism while strategy was blunt

China had asked the Tibetan representatives to present their version but the Dalai Lama's concept of autonomy for Tibet, which he had been advocating since the late 1980s, could not have been accepted by Beijing ever. The Tibetan government-in-exile wants a new self-governing territory comprising areas inhabited by ethnic Tibetans which is quite a share of the entire Chinese territory, restrictions on non-Tibetans entering the Tibetan areas and power on all issues inside the Tibetan, barring defence and foreign relations.

China clearly views the 'Great Tibet' idea of the Dalai Lama as a politically-motivated one, something which would only fuel more internal turmoil. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama can not afford to backtrack from his claim, which could mean betrayal with his own followers. The deadlock has led to some of the exiled Tibetans demand absolute independence from China.

The Dalai Lama-led movement suffered from the leadership's lack of precision again when it started criticising China for its human rights abuses in the Tibet. This strategy, too, seemed to have lost appeal among the majority Chinese who saw an anti-Han feeling taking shape. India, too, has decided to move away from the earlier positions it had held on Tibet. In 2003, the Vajpayee-government of India had recognised Tibet as a part of China in lieu of the latter confirming its recognition of Sikkim as a part of India.

The Tibetan leadership erred in not engaging China in a dialogue with reference to a simplistic concept of autonomy. Flirting with the idea of ethnic separatism would never have earned it any concession from China. The Dalai Lama's Tibet of dream should have been a moderate one for it is absolutely irrational to expect that he would succeed in effecting some of kind of territorial manipulation for a region which he had fled over 50 years ago, not taking into account the changed ground reality. Or otherwise, it will be increasingly projected that the Dalai Lama is trying to split the country.

Dalai not a politician

But the Dalai can not be blamed for these drawbacks for he is not a trained and cunning politician. A noted US author has rightly said that religious leaders are not equipped to play the political game and rather 'peace', 'love' and 'forgiveness' are their favourite terms. In case the situation really calls for a hitting back, such people mostly remain silent. The Dalai has also been following this path of late.

Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama, irrespective of his failure as a political leader, continues and will in the future, enjoy the high moral ground in the public mind. Here, the Dalai Lama is lucky for many other political leaders in the world who have fought similar battles against mighty undemocratic regimes, have had to pay hard price.

The 14th Dalai Lama has served as a courageous symbol of a resistance against a totalitarian regime and he will remain a bright chapter of history in days to come. His divinity and universal appeal will eclipse the mundane political failure.

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