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Prepare for US wrath!

July 18, 2003 13:03 IST

The timing is significant.

The introduction of a Bill to stop H-1B visas.

The US Senate's approval of a bill cutting foreign aid to India for non-payment of property tax to the city of New York for a building that houses its UN mission.

Both these occurred within days after India rejected the US appeal to send its troops to maintain the peace in Iraq.  

Despite all the official assertions to the contrary, it is obvious that the Cabinet Committee on Security's decision against sending troops to Iraq has upset Washington. And India should not be surprised if some more punitive measures are introduced. This is just the beginning.

In The Hindustan Times titled  India faces bushfire for not sending troops to Iraq, senior diplomatic correspondent Saurabh Shukla says US officials have already conveyed their 'displeasure' over this to Ambassador Lalit Mansingh.

Shukla also says senior Pentagon official Peter Rodman, who led the delegation to Delhi to clarify Indian doubts about the deployment, 'told the head of  India's Defence Intelligence Agency, Lt Gen Kamal Davar, that India's refusal to send troops may have a negative impact on Indo-US ties.'

The reasons for the American anger are not hard to find. After nearly two months of official dithering, during which the Indian media kept asserting that sending of troops was almost a certainty, the refusal must have come as somewhat of a let down.

Political, rather than pragmatic and economic concerns, were behind the Indian refusal. And that is indeed a shame. 

What was even more ironic was that the decision came a day after the constitution of a Iraqi governing council (albeit under a firm US grip). The lack of a local government in Iraq was earlier cited as one of the reasons for a possible refusal.

I have argued earlier that India should have taken a decision after weighing all the pros and cons. 

Instead of antagonising Washington, we should have taken this opportunity to extract whatever we could, politically, economically, and strategically, from the US before agreeing to send our boys to Iraq.

We must understand that the American request came at a time when the Bush administration was facing increasing domestic pressure to bring its troops back home.   

This desperation was evident in the way Washington tried to clarify most of India's initial reservations. The troops would fly the Indian flag. They would not be expected to indulge in combat operations. This was evident in the UN resolution it forced through, inviting all assistance to the 'occupying powers' attempts to rebuild Iraq.

Politically, having an IoU from the world's sole superpower would have given us an handle that not many other nations can boast of. And this leverage would not have been limited to greater American understanding of our position on Pakistan.

Economically, we could have negotiated huge contracts for the reconstruction of the ravaged nation. Contracts for oil and gas exploration.

And strategically, this would have given us a political presence in Iraq, perhaps even a say in the formation of the final government there. Wishful thinking? Perhaps not.

But the government, in all its wisdom, felt otherwise.

Why?

Because the Opposition saw an opportunity to take on the government on this issue, and did so without considering the fallout. The Congress, which had no qualms about sending the IPKF to Sri Lanka without any UN sanction, insisted on such sanction this time. Of course, their argument is that India was 'invited' by a legitimate government to intervene.

Because many within the government, including the prime minister, thought Indian soldiers dying in Iraq would adversely impact its chances in the elections coming up this year and next year. Besides, talks with Iraq's main neighbours, Iran and Turkey, apparently indicated they were averse to the Indian deployment.

Right. As if Iran would be willing to do anything that helps America.

As if Turkey, which is already facing problems with the US over its incursions into the Kurd-held areas of Iraq, would be willing to take on Indian soldiers too.

Members of India's ruling coalition were not prepared to accept a situation 'where the troops would get killed doing some other power's dirty work,' said The Hindu newspaper. 

Excuse me? Sending troops to a war-ravaged nation is dirty work when it comes as a request from the US, but not so when it comes from Sri Lanka?  

Even if we sneer at the opportunity to avail of the spoils of war, even if we agree that our so-called 'moral' principles prohibit us from joining forces with the winner in a war which we had officially opposed.

Did we ever seriously consider what the refusal would entail?

Will the Indian-American community, striving to garner greater political and economic clout in the US, (and incidentally, largely supporters of the BJP) jump for joy? Are the scores of H-1B aspirants likely to applaud the decision? Will the babus negotiating on the WTO with the US laugh when Washington starts opposing Indian initiatives which would have sailed through earlier? Will our military establishment, which had kept its forces in readiness in case the government decided to say yes, throw parties to celebrate the sale of more American arms to Pakistan?

However, there is still a glimmer of hope. Desperate attempts are on to get the UN involved in the peacekeeping. If it agrees, then India, the second largest contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, shouldn't have problems sending its troops to Iraq. The problem is, neither will France and Germany. And India will not have the first mover advantage.

Ramananda Sengupta