|What Libya, Syria Want||Why India?|
On July 21, ten days before India assumed the chair of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) according to its logic of rotation, the beleagured Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, sent his foreign minister, Abdel Aati Al Obeidi, to New Delhi with a pointed brief—enlist the UPA government’s help in finding an amicable, negotiated solution to the civil war convulsing his country. Ten days later, winging his way to New Delhi was Fayss Al Mekdad, vice-foreign minister of Syria, where a popular demand for democracy and regime change is being met with such ferocity that the regime’s diplomatic stock is sinking. His agenda was similar to Obeidi’s—request India’s assistance to preserve the status quo.
Observers whose job it is to decode subtle signals in diplomacy ask: does the courting of India by Libya and Syria reflect India’s rising stock in the Arab world? Or have they come only because as a non-member of the UNSC, India opposed and ultimately abstained from voting on a resolution that sanctioned a limited armed intervention in Libya by western powers? Indian officials neatly sidestep such questions, and say India’s stand on Libya was taken both on the basis of principle and ground realities. An external affairs ministry (MEA) official says, “When we abstained from voting, we knew the situation in Libya will only deteriorate further if there was armed intervention by outside forces. That’s exactly what has happened.”
The West’s decision to intervene in Libya, sources in the Indian establishment say, stemmed not only from the altruistic desire to protect innocent civilians but was also driven by oil politics. Cables from the US embassy, despatched from Tripoli to Washington between 2007 and 2008 and spilled into the public domain by WikiLeaks, testify to the growing concerns of western oil companies, including those of America, over Gaddafi’s proposal to renegotiate stiffer business terms with them. They feared other oil-producing countries might follow suit, as they had done in the early 1970s. An additional complaint was Gaddafi’s handing out lucrative contracts in this sector to countries like China, Russia and, to some extent, India.
Libya’s foreign minister Abdel Aati Al Obeid
This doesn’t mean India is oblivious to the autocratic nature of the Gaddafi regime. They know its legitimacy has been greatly undermined after the Arab Spring, which has seen pro-democracy sentiments blow across the Arab world—and against its dictators and monarchs. It was in this context that the West’s intervention in Libya came, and India, a democratic country, couldn’t have openly ignored the popular demand for a representative and inclusive government.
The armed involvement (airstrikes directed at regime forces and other targets), though, have failed to dislodge Gaddafi thus far, and signs of a grinding stalemate have injected a dose of reality into the expectations of contending parties. Claiming that Gaddafi now wants an “honourable exit” from the current crisis, South Block officials say they were given a peek into a new proposal that suggests an immediate declaration of ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, an end to the naval blockade and lifting of the “no fly zone” by western powers to create a situation for an amicable settlement. Officials here feel that Gaddafi is now not only willing to step down, but would also stay away from any process seeking to involve Libyans for deciding the country’s fate as well as his—such a course of events in fact constitutes the road map of the African Union (AU). New Delhi feels that either the AU or an independent outfit could oversee the transition in Libya.
In a similar stand, India has also advised Damascus against using brute force to stifle popular opinion against the autocratic regime and suppress protesters on the streets. This could enable India to fine-tune its stance at a time when the West has begun to increasingly talk of imposing sanctions on Syria.
As events unfold in these two countries, there’s no denying that it has opened space for India to play a more meaningful role in the region vital to it both politically and economically. India has over 6.5 m people in the region, which is also its main source for energy as well as being an important trade and investment destination. Former Indian diplomat R. Dayakar, who has spent many years in the Arab world, says, “India should use its soft power to play a more proactive role in this region.”
Gharekhan with the Syrian vice-foreign minister, Fayss Al Mekdad. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)
Perhaps India can now employ its soft power and re-engage with the Arab world because of the overlapping of certain propitious factors—it’s in the UNSC, its economic and military might has increased in the recent past, and it has acquired a new importance for western powers in matters related to Asia. And it isn’t just the Arab world which recognises India’s new salience in the emerging world order. Even the US have begun to engage with New Delhi on the Arab world, as evident from last month’s first-ever dialogue between India and the US on West Asia. Similarly, most other powers—Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany—have entered into consultations with India on the future political landscape of the Arab world. Even the final document of the India-Africa Summit, held in Ethiopia in May, talked of participating leaders sharing their views and concerns for resolving the Libyan imbroglio.
Chinmaya Gharekhan, who was till recently the prime minister’s special envoy for West Asia, told Outlook, “We shouldn’t look at our presence in the UNSC as a probationary period. We should look at the developments in this region from our national interest.” Gharekhan was referring to those in the West, particularly in America, who never tire of harping that India’s aspiration to get a permanent seat in the UNSC could depend on how it conducts itself and the stand it takes during its current two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. In other words, the desire for a permanent UNSC seat shouldn’t lure India to dance to the American tune, at the expense of compromising its interests.