There’s a downside to the people of India taking pride in their country’s credentials of being the world’s largest democracy—street protests anywhere abroad inspires some to mount pressure on New Delhi for endorsing the agitating throng unequivocally. This sentiment came to the fore again this week as the upheaval in Egypt prompted a demand from the chattering classes that New Delhi should substitute its weak, cautious support with an expression of strong approval of those pouring into Cairo streets against President Hosni Mubarak. These sections must have drawn solace from foreign minister S.M. Krishna’s belated comments on February 2 that “the people of Egypt are fairly clear in their thinking and their action and those who are ruling Egypt must see the writing on the wall.”
Was Krishna’s remark a diplomatic way of extending support to those who want Mubarak out? In fact, the statement was ambiguous enough to provide scope for the MEA to claim that Krishna’s remarks were in consonance with India’s policy of not adopting a ‘prescriptive’ approach to the internal affairs of another country. Yet there’s no denying that New Delhi has subtly kept refining its stance through the week, taking care to keep abreast of daily revisions in the position of western powers, particularly that of the US. Thus it is that Krishna’s remarks came within hours of US President Barack Obama demanding an immediate, peaceful, meaningful change in Egypt.
Critics should empathise with New Delhi’s cautious approach. Except for a couple of prescient Indian ambassadors in the region, few had predicted that Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution would swiftly spread to other parts of the Arab world. As Cairo began to reverberate with slogans for change, New Delhi took a few compelling factors into account before fashioning its response. For one, it wasn’t sure whether the street protests could sustain. Second, it didn’t want to jump the gun at this early stage and openly oppose Mubarak, whom India took many years to mollify for what he had thought were New Delhi’s slights to him (See ‘Mubarak and India’). The question before India was, what if Mubarak survives? To it was linked the third factor—the need to first ensure the safety of Indians and protect India’s $2 billion worth investments in Egypt. Its interests secured, the foreign minister’s statement underlined New Delhi’s sentiments—the scale had tilted against Mubarak both at home and abroad.
India will now have to countenance such policy challenges in West Asia. As N. Ravi, former MEA secretary, told Outlook, “The winds of change have begun to blow and it is the new generation of Arabs born in the age of internet who want their aspirations to be met.” In a large swathe of West Asia, nearly half the population is below 25 years, their frustration deepening as unemployment figures rise and educational qualification improves. It’s they who are demanding better governance, a larger share in the national wealth, and freedom on par with that prevailing elsewhere. It’s also they who have taken to the streets following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vendor who set himself ablaze in protest against the high-handedness of the police.
To this rage of the street add long-festering problems of the region—the Palestine-Israel issue, instability in Iraq, the fear of Iran’s controversial nuclear programme—and you know this changing, unstable West Asia demands a careful, calibrated rethink of India’s policy. This is imperative in the light of India’s high stakes in the region. It has a diaspora of over 5.5 million living and working there. Billions of dollars are received as remittance every year from these people. The region is also India’s main source of energy as its largest trading bloc, the two-way trade worth a whopping $110 billion. Besides, West Asia has many sites where Muslims go on pilgrimage, including Haj, and is becoming an important destination for Indian tourists.
|UAE A confede-ration of states, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan took over as president in 2004. Liberal but restricts free speech.||Syria Formally a republic, it has a hereditary dictatorship. Bashir al-Assad came to power in 2000, plagued by economic stagnation.|
|Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al- Thani ousted his father to take power in 1995. Has the largest gas reserves in the world. Al Jazeera’s base.||Bahrain Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has been the ruler since 1999, floated Forum for the Future to bring about reforms in the region|
|S. Arabia The house of Saud has been ruling since Saudi's birth in 1932. Incumbent King Abdullah oversees the world's largest oil reserves.||Libya Muammar al Gaddafi has been in power from 1969. Has provided free housing, education, but has a dismal human rights record.|
|Jordan King Abdullah II came to power in ’99, after his father died. Changed the prime minister last week to mollify the public.||Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for 30 years, says he will step down in 2013, his son won't succeed him|
|Oman Qaboos bin Said al Said has been the hereditary sultan since 1970. Has an elected council. Wants further political reforms.||Kuwait Has elected a national assembly but powers vested in the hereditary emir. Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the emir, has often dissolved house.|
South Block officials, though, feel the Gulf countries are less susceptible to volatile street protests than others. The Gulf not only has a wider resource base from their oil revenues to pacify dissent, they have shown a propensity to “coopt, rather than coerce” voices of opposition. In addition, the Gulf is dominated by monarchies which are largely based on strong tribal loyalties, thus imparting legitimacy to their rule and providing themselves elbow room to undertake political manoeuvres.
Says Oxford historian Eugene Rogan, “The republics are more vulnerable to change than the hereditary monarchies. Rule for life and dynastic succession are part and parcel of monarchy and each monarchy in the region has a socio-religious basis for legitimacy.” These monarchs also have the advantage of blaming prime ministers for unpopular policies and removing them to placate the people. That said, the unprecedented developments in Tunisia and Egypt will certainly inspire the educated, the unemployed and the young to demand greater freedom. Says Rogan, “Events in Tunisia and Egypt have electrified people across the region, and we can expect major changes—evolutionary and revolutionary—right through 2011.”
South Block officials are monitoring the situation in the Arab world on an hourly basis, fervently hoping that the region, particularly the Gulf, doesn’t remain on the boil for long. Should the democratic movement gather momentum, and the transition from the old to new order isn’t smooth, India will have its job cut out. Imagine the nightmarish situation of evacuating a million Indians from, say, a Gulf country undergoing an Egypt-like upheaval, simultaneously stabilising the oil prices and ensuring uninterrupted supply of oil.