Is the Congress party’s baggage damaging India’s relations with the new Iraq?

New in Baghdad and looking for direction

Harsh Pant writes that even as India faces the task of rebuilding its relations with the post-Saddam Iraq, it is investing very little effort in this respect.

India had offered $20 million in assistance to Iraq when the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan had appealed to the global community to help Iraq in 2003. But the details of that assistance remain murky and it is not clear what follow-up action was taken by India in this regard. India’s special envoy to Iraq, C.R. Gharekhan did go to Iraq in May but his visit only produced some sound-bites. For a country that has ‘‘great power’’ aspirations, India’s lackluster response to events in its extended neighborhood is indeed a travesty. Events in the next few days and months will define the contours of the Middle East for years to come and it is still not too late for India to carve out its own strategic agenda. Merely reacting to events around it is not a sign of a confident global player. [IE]

What is worse, after the revelations of the Volcker report, it is difficult to determine whether this is a result of the UPA’s policy dogma, the Congress party’s association with the Saddam Hussein regime or sheer incompetence.

The Congress party (and its Communist supporters in parliament) were opposed to the US invasion of Iraq. The diplomatic hangover from the opposition to the Iraq war could well have translated into apathy towards the American-directed developments in the post-Saddam Iraq. That itself is inexcusable. If India had supported the United States during the Iraq war, it would have been in a good position to engage the post-Saddam dispensation. Subsequently, the Indian government chose to keep a safe distance away from the turmoil in Iraq, wanting no part in what it saw as America’s problem. As a direct result of this apathetic policy, India took the long snake back to square one.

But what of the impact of the ‘oil for food’ angle? If the Congress party and Natwar Singh were close enough to the Saddam Hussein regime to be awarded oily thank-you’s, it is a tad difficult for them to be in the good books of the new rulers of Baghdad (and their American advisors). Unfortunately for India, the Congress party is currently in power and Mr Natwar Singh is, as foreign minister, the very person whose job it is to rebuild bridges with Iraq. So much for the past, but as long as Natwar Singh retains his current portfolio India will find it tough going in Iraq.

In fact at one point it seemed that with a new government in Baghdad ready to roll out the red carpet for Indian businessmen, India’s once thriving economic ties with Iraq, which took a hit after the US-led invasion in 2003, were poised to bounce back. But there was a complete lack of initiative on the part of the India and progress on the economic front has been tardy. Given the high rating of the Indian companies in the Iraqi market and the traditional warm relations between the two countries, Indian companies could have easily cornered a huge chunk of that business. [IE]

But what about incompetence? The UPA government’s handling of the case of the kidnapped truck drivers suggested more than just a lack of influence in Iraq. Without accounting for incompetence, it is difficult to explain how a bunch of Iraqi thugs could extract a symbolic concession from the government of a country with more than a million men in uniform.

Iraq is and will be extremely important to India. Not least because of its oil, its geographic location, and its future as a potential Arab democracy. India must work towards changing the level of bilateral engagement with Iraq. This is unlikely to happen under Natwar Singh.

Another lesson India can draw from this episode is that depending on dictators is fraught with all the dangers of their mortality. It needs to have a good plan for post-Musharraf Pakistan.

8 thoughts on “Is the Congress party’s baggage damaging India’s relations with the new Iraq?”

  1. The Volcker report could possibly be the best thing too happen to Indian Foreign policy. It could possibly move Natwar out, and help Dr. ManMohan Singh bring in someone more competent. This was way overdue, and the report could be a nice excuse to do so.

    But, then, the Congress does not have too many of the solid, strong, and smart candidates who could do Foreign Policy well. Sharad Pawar has the ability, but not so much likely the inclination. Bringing back Jaswant Singh could be an inspired out-of-the-box move. Maybe some of the young turks ? Maybe Anil Ambani ?

    Who else will be considered to replace Natwar here ?

  2. Subra,

    Too early to celebrate. My fear is that Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar may be called in to fill in Natwar’s shoes.

  3. If India had sent in its troops then to Iraq, India would’ve been bleeding on atleast 2 fronts; Kashmir and Iraq. GWBush wanted American troops to come back home to win his election, and they would’ve been replaced by Indian troops. Much of what is happening in Iraq might also have started to happen in India now. And ultimately, it was an illegal war, no matter how genuine the reasons were. And India entering an untimely illegal conflict not of their making would’ve not gone well with Indians either. Not just the Congress (and the moribund Communists), but the BJP was also not in favour of the conflict either.

    That said, I strongly favour Indian peace keeping troops going in Now after the Iraqi constitution has been approved. The world needs a stable Iraq, if not a totally democratic Iraq. India can still salvage ome lost friendships there. And there have been a lot of common factors lately between Iraqi insurgency and Kashmiri insurgency. Our American and Iraqi friends can also use some help there too. They have done most of the hard work and need all the support.

    Although, Natwar must go, even if to come back after he has been found not-guilty (if at all). Indians definately need some new blood and thinking in its foreign policy.

    Will there be ever apost-Musharraf Pakistan? 🙂 He doesn’t mind sleeping with the enemy (Americans) and the Mullahs at the same time. Will Pakistanis get rid of him themselves now after the quake or do we have to wait for a quake near Rawalpindi?

  4. Sachin, i beg to disagree with you on “it was ultimately an illegal war”
    saddam invades a sovereign nation [kuwait] in 1991 and is swiftly expelled by the coalition forces. following which sanctions are applied and he is allowed to stay in control, which in 20/20 was a big mistake. nevertheless saddy shows his gratitude by unleashing his wrath on the betrayed shias and kurds and then merrily proceeds to break or circumvent, at times in complicity with some of the higher ups of the very body that is considered the arbiter of a “legitimate” war.
    in the years leading upto the current occupation of iraq, saddam’s regime continues to ignore warnings and is believed [also by chirac, schroeder, blair, and hans blix] to be in possesion of or in the process of developing wmd’s.
    this is more than enough reason for a legal war. now just because some people at the u.n. are bought off doesn’t mean that the rest of the world should ignore the threat that this madman posed to the iraqi’s, the very vital oil producing region and the world.

    i apologize for my long winded comment. however, since i am on a roll and my wife is asleep. i would also like add my do paise on the who should replace nut-war discussion.

    a great “out of the box” alternate would be dr.karan singh. a man whose charm, wit, grasp of geo politcs and eloquence were on full display at a recent event at new york’s asia society, where he had the majority american [policy and business types] audience wah, wahing his speech and answers to the posited queries. he has done a stint as the indian amb to the u.s., albeit brief and is a pucca “india first” man.
    another great out of the box candidate, but when hell frezzes over in the eyes of the upa, would be arun shourie.

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