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India's dilemma in West Asia

Last updated on: March 11, 2011 18:55 IST

India has handled the West Asia crisis with finesse so far and it should not be abandoned for a false sense of having to stand up to the West. We should strive for gradual and peaceful change with the necessary flexibility in our approach, says T P Sreenivasan.

Genuine dilemmas in foreign policy should not be seen either as weakness or lack of independence. India, like many other countries of the world, is grappling with a new situation in West Asia and it cannot be hasty or rash in reaching conclusions.

The problem has been compounded by the fact that we are on the UN Security Council, where we are expected to take positions on a daily basis in the consultations and take part occasionally in public debates and votes. Some of the concerns relate to international peace and security, but we have our own special problems of greater magnitude. The challenge today is to balance our role in the Security Council with our vital interests in the region.

When Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia faced a question on the revolution in Egypt in Davos, he leaned towards stability rather than democracy for obvious reasons. But as the situation developed and change came to Egypt, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calibrated his position to state that whatever happens in West Asia is a matter of concern for us as millions of Indians are working there.

"India is a functioning democracy; we support the process of democracy in West Asian countries; no doubt in it." He brought in both stability and democracy into his concerns regarding the region.

The changes in West Asia are as unsettling as the end of the Cold War. No one wanted the Cold War and the non-aligned nations were the most vigorous in clamouring for its end. But when it ended with cataclysmic changes, it was the non-aligned countries which lost their sense of comfort.

No one would approve of the authoritarian regimes in principle, but they played a role in keeping the oil wealth intact and ensuring its distribution in a fairly orderly manner. They even gave a sense of security to Israel within limits. Individual freedom had its place in those societies, but religion and traditions made up for lack of freedom of expression or association. The transformation in West Asia will raise as many questions as the end of the Cold War did.

Indian foreign policy had some spectacular successes in adjusting to the post-Cold War era. Although we took time, we were resilient enough to move beyond our established positions. The initial nostalgia for the Cold War gave way to a pragmatic policy in politics, economics and finance. The same can be accomplished by readjusting our vision slowly, deliberately and with a sense of purpose. We may also be able to influence the events if we are able to influence the thinking of those regimes not affected by the protests as yet.

At the time of the first Gulf war, one of the hasty decisions we took was to allow our policy to be determined by our priority to bring the Indian nationals back as soon as possible. The Indian foreign minister hugging Saddam Hussein and the explanation that it was meant to seek his cooperation to get the Indians out of Kuwait and Iraq were misunderstood by the world.

Of course, the security of our people is of prime importance and no government can resist the pressure to bring the Indian nationals back. But other options to secure their safety must be considered seriously. Most Indians went back to Kuwait, but we earned a reputation for fleeing the scene with no concern for the safety of the local people.

The position taken by the government that it was merely responding to the demands of the people is justified, but we need to develop a culture by which our expatriates stand by the local people when they are in danger. We know in hindsight that nothing grave would have happened to the Indians in Kuwait if they had stayed behind.

The Libyan situation today presents a particular dilemma. It is more a civil war than a revolution, based on tribal loyalties and rivalries. We should be with the people, but the people themselves are divided about the fate of their maverick leader. We would normally not sanction coercive measures by the Security Council, but it will not be very long before we go along with those who favour intervention at least on humanitarian grounds.

If Gaddafi's air force continues to kill people, how long can we oppose a no-fly zone? Has not the no-fly zone in Iraq done some good to the situation there? Security Council members are generally in favour of consensus on these issues and we should be able to deal with the Libyan situation without any confrontation in the Council. Libya has to be seen as sui generis and we should not be captive to the principle of non-intervention, however noble it may be in normal circumstances.

The Gulf region is the most sensitive for India and our interest lies in peaceful and gradual change to representative government. It should dawn on the region sooner rather than later that changes are inevitable. India is perhaps in the best position to advise these governments on the measures that could be taken to involve people in decision-making. Ironically, this would mean our getting even closer to the regimes to generate faith and confidence in us. We may make any contingency plans for the safety of our people, but it should not exclude the possibility of our people staying back to help in a difficult situation.

India has handled the West Asia crisis with finesse so far and it should not be abandoned for a false sense of having to stand up to the West. We should strive for gradual and peaceful change with the necessary flexibility in our approach.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a member of the National Security Advisory Board. For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here

T P Sreenivasan