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The Mantri-ji looked filmi; the bureaucrats looked serious; the AIDS-infected looked anxious; the rest just looked.

india Updated: Jul 28, 2002 20:36 IST

The Mantri-ji looked filmi; the bureaucrats looked serious; the AIDS-infected looked anxious; the rest just looked. India’s arrival on the International AIDS stage might well have been a preview of Bombay Dreamz. They made enough of a song-and-dance of it.

Shatrughan Sinha moved readily into C.P. Thakur’s portfolio and travel arrangements. The 14-day-old Health Minister arrived at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona with a swagger, designer-wardrobe and fan-following that his predecessor could never have hoped to match. With little time for homework, he did what he’s better at. He acted.

The Shotgun had a standard opening salvo: “I know I have a difficult name, but if you can remember Richard Burton and Rock Hudson, you can remember Shatru-gan!” The assembled audience — adoring desi and bemused pardesi — would have liked to remember him for his AIDS action. For now, they had to make do with only Lights! And more cameras.

But let me not be too harsh on the man who has moved from screen tests to blood tests. All international AIDS conferences are like a Bollywood film. They have plots and sub-plots that go beyond rich-donor-meets-poor-sufferer. There are heroes, but none of them have yet matched the sway, staying-power, and sheer sexual attraction of the Arch Villain. Scientist and layman (to say nothing of laid-woman) all desperately seek the sure-fire formula. There are exotic locations, and a lot of money riding on this circuit. And, as in our films, despite the amazing display of energy, the story-line doesn’t seem to move very far.

But, why compare an International AIDS Conference (IAC) only with Bollywood? In fact, it offers, in microcosm, a study in global politics, economics, sociology, even Darwinian biodiversity.

Let’s start with geopolitics. The whole gamut of this is to be found in the limited engagement of an IAC. Better even than at the UN or a WTO meet, you can discern the conflicting pulls of North and South, the sinister bargaining chips of the poor against the rich. At any IAC’s plenary session or backroom parley, you can observe the phenomenon of the beleaguered HIV-haves threatening the otherwise swaggering have-nots. The virus, riding on that most irresistible of human needs, slips across boundaries with the ease of a lubricated condom. Which is why when the Third World shivers from AIDS-elated delirium tremens, the developed world gets cold feet. Bin Laid ( and infected) can destabilise more scarily than Bin Laden.

An IAC provides more complex lessons in power-bloc politics. The reigning superpower, UNAIDS, needs to protect its hegemony. The latest challenger is IAVI, now that the vaccine initiative has moved from shot in the dark to shot in the arm. The Global Fund juggles its embarrassing $2 billion (instead of the expected 10), hoping to hold its own against others jumping on the World Bankwagon. Then there’s the displaced population crowd demanding squatter rights on the swanky AIDS condom-inium.

You can push the viral envelop even further at an IAC, and gain astonishing insights into all the seething life-forms of an entire biosphere. Ministers and MPs are the latest species to evolve: because AIDS control can survive only with the fittest political commitment. At Barcelona, these flashy specimens grabbed a huge slice of the attention pie from the established predators of the AIDS food-chain, the specialised global agencies.

Other strands of the symbiotic networking of life could be studied in the lab of this latest IAC. Scientists burrowed in research papers while fat-cat pharma companies tried desperately to safeguard patents against imminent genericide. They used every weapon in their armoury, from hefty grants to free coffee. Scoff not at the latter since at the Fiera Barcelona, cafeteria queues were longer than those at a Ugandan AIDS clinic.

The other side of AIDS diversity was visible in the NGO Village. In contrast to the sleek and sterile pharma malls, this was a bustling bazar pulsating with songs, sarongs and signature campaigns. In an evolutionary development as heartening as it is tragic, the most vocal activists were now not the do-gooders, but those actually on the harsh cutting-edge of the pandemic, infected sex workers, drug-injectors, gay men, and most lately, women who received the virus second-hand. In this sobering swamp, you could hear the leapfrogging language of empowerment — even Powerpoint presentations.

And as in any food-chain, there were the vultures. Beady-eyed operators who could spot rich pickings at 20 paces, and swoop on them in a smooth flash of bogus projects. Yes, the international conference exposes the Full Monty of human behaviour, a warts-and-all canvas of people dying of AIDS — and people living off it.

First Published: Jul 28, 2002 19:00 IST