Uncertain diplomacy

Print edition : July 25, 2014

Indian nurses who were trapped in territory captured by ISIS fighters waiting at Irbil International Airport, Iraq, on July 4 for their journey home. Photo: AP

ARDENT supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some political and media commentators had, in the early days of the approximately month-old Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, repeatedly claimed that the swearing-in of the new Ministry was marked by an unparalleled diplomatic coup. The reason for this high praise was Modi’s invitation to the heads of state of all seven South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries and the acceptance of the same by these leaders, who included Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, the emergence of a real test for diplomacy in the form of the Iraq crisis has deflated much of the earlier euphoria. The inadequacies of the government in general and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in particular in responding to the Iraq situation and taking quick and necessary steps to ensure the safety of Indians trapped there are being roundly criticised in different quarters. Experts in the foreign policy area, the common people and relatives of Indians caught in the raging hostilities have pointed to the series of mistakes committed by the new government in responding to the situation.

K.P. Fabian, who served in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) for more than 30 years, told Frontline that the shortcomings in the government’s approach were reflected in the very formulation of the evacuation plan for stranded Indians. Right from the early days of the Iraq crisis, the position of the MEA was that there was no need for a mass evacuation. MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said: “Only when normal communication is not available would we look at other options…. Communications and airports both in Baghdad and Erbil are available. Flights of a commercial nature are flying out…. If any Indian who wants to come back is having trouble, we will certainly help them.”

While this was publicly stated in India, the same message was given to Indians in Iraq with a slightly different emphasis. They were asked to write to the Indian diplomatic mission if they wished to be evacuated. The implication was that evacuation would not be considered until the diplomatic mission was approached with a request. Even as this approach was being pursued, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) held two sets of Indian employees captive: 39 construction workers in early June and, subsequently, 46 nurses hailing from Kerala. The nurses were first holed up at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital and later shifted to an unknown location in Mosul on July 3. On July 4, all the nurses were released. But a large number of Indians continue to be apprehensive about their own safety as the hostilities between the Iraqi army and the Sunni militants have been mounting and there is no clear indication as to how they will be protected.

Fabian said the Indian government had failed to grasp the situation that prevailed in Iraq. “An emergency situation has to be seen as an emergency situation and the government should have devised plans and taken steps for evacuation. The optional formula is completely unacceptable in a situation like this.” Relatives of the nurses told Frontline that the general approach of the government’s representatives was callous. “It is clear that these leaders have no concern for those trapped in Iraq. Our children have been seeking help for quite a long time. But the sense of urgency required was completely absent in the response of the government representatives. Almost always they seemed to be vague about the possible plan of action,” said P.C. Joseph of Ettumanoor in Kerala in a telephonic conversation with Frontline. Joseph’s daughters are among the 46 nurses who have been sent back from Mosul.

This vagueness about the plan of action was reflected not only at the level of government representatives but at the level of Ministers, too. As news of the 39 construction workers being kept hostage came, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who is practically the No. 2 in the government, said India was “looking into all options” and “all suggestions are on the table”. He stated this when a specific question was asked whether the government was planning mass evacuation of Indians. Later, when the MEA spokesperson was asked to explain what the Home Minister meant by “all options”, his response retained much of the ambiguity. “All options mean all options,” he said rather vaguely.

These generalised comments were, in many ways, a toning down of the earlier MEA position that the hostage issue would be addressed through three doors: front door, back door and trap door. The interpretation of this within the MEA was that the front door meant normal diplomacy and the back door meant exerting pressure through other stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and Qatar. The trap door, which was to be the last option, apparently meant non-conventional options, including the use of armed forces. Foreign policy experts with whom Frontline interacted, however, laughed at this proposition.

“Barring the IPKF [Indian Peace Keeping Force] operations in Sri Lanka, which happened at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government of that period, India had never exercised the armed forces option. Perhaps the new thinking in the MEA reflects the new so-called macho leadership that the country has,” said a former IFS officer. The experts feel that the government should go into the country’s own track record on similar situations, study those experiences seriously, draw lessons and adapt them to devise strategies required to deal with the present situation. Their view was that instead of alternating between vagueness and machismo, the government should tap the people and agencies involved in the evacuations during the 1991 Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies in 2003 for information. The Air Force, the Navy and the military along with civilian resources such as Air India were involved in these operations. It is not clear whether these voices are reaching the present dispensation at the Centre, or even if they do, whether they are being considered seriously. Until that is done and a comprehensive plan is formulated, foreign policy, too, will join the factors contributing to the so-called absent honeymoon period of his government that Prime Minister Modi referred to in his blog marking 30 days in office.

Fabian pointed out that beyond the hostage crisis and the evacuation challenge, the government would need to evolve approaches for the medium and long term, too, in relation to Iraq. In his view, the trouble-torn country is witnessing a tumultuous movement towards disintegration. “The Iraq that we know could soon become three entities, which I would now call Kurdistan, Shiastan and Sunnistan. While Kurdistan and Shiastan could settle into relatively stable political dispensations given the play of factors involving them, Sunnistan could be a geographical and political entity with sustained turbulence. All this will impact Indian interests in the region. The government needs to start addressing these prospective issues too right away,” Fabian said.

Another major result of the current situation will have to do with India’s oil requirements. The militants have taken over the biggest oil refinery in Iraq, and this is bound to have global implications for oil prices and supply. This has grave implications for India. As the economist C.P. Chandrasekhar points out in an article elsewhere in this magazine, the implications for India are all the more serious because of the unsustainable current account deficit and inflation. The projections in concrete terms are that this is bound to impact India’s overall trade situation as well as gross domestic product. Clearly, this is one more compelling reason to get out of the cosmetic and vague approaches that have characterised the handling of the Iraq situation and move on to a rounded, comprehensive approach with clear targets and action plans.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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