India In a Trap on Iraq

As the beat of America’s war-drums against Iraq gets louder, the Indian government finds itself in an untenably contradictory situation: should it support a United Nations-endorsed attack against Iraq’s "terrorist" Saddam Hussein regime, as part of US President George W. Bush’s "global war against terrorism", which it zealously and unconditionally welcomed a year ago? Or should it maintain a distance from virulently anti-Iraq moves and call for a diplomatic solution to the problem posed by Baghdad’s search for a capacity to make weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)?

New Delhi’s dilemma is leading it to shift from a formal stance opposing war against Iraq to a position of ambiguity, sometimes even paralysis. Thus, early in September, Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha conveyed to US Secretary of State Colin Powell India’s view cautioning against the use of force, in particular a "pre-emptive" attack. But during his United Nations address on September 13, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee carefully avoided any mention of Iraq although he spoke on a range of issues besides India and Pakistan.

The Vajpayee government is coming under increasing pressure from the pro-US Right in India to move from ambiguity to a position of tacit or overt support for a war against Iraq. This is a minority view. But supplementing the pressure is the pro-Zionist and anti-Islamic ideological orientation of the Right-wing of the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the ruling coalition in India. This faction is instinctively hostile to Saddam Hussein.

India has traditionally had good relations with Baghdad. It has been one of the biggest buyers of Iraqi oil through long-term contracts. It has for years opposed the harsh sanctions against Iraq and supplied food and medicines to it in the recent past. Officials say India has lost about $30 billion in missed exports and trade opportunities owing to the sanctions over the past decade.

On the other hand, New Delhi also fervently seeks a "strategic partnership" with the US, which it sees as crucial to advancing its interests in South Asia, which it links to isolating its rival Pakistan.

Complicating the choice is the fact that Iraq is one of the few countries of the world – and in West Asia – to support India’s proclaimed stand on Kashmir, namely that Kashmir is an integral and inalienable part of India.

How the Vajpayee government resolves the dilemma remains clouded in confusion. But it is abundantly clear that its dilemma will become increasingly acute if the US moves towards extending the "anti-terror" war to Iraq and overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime.

Dealing with the "threat" posed by Iraq is the only major issue in foreign or strategic policy on which the Vajpayee government and the Republican administration – both conservative in orientation – have differed significantly ever since Bush came to power. Otherwise, New Delhi has strongly supported some of Bush’s most aggressively unilateralist moves, especially those targeting arms control agreements in respect of WMDs. Such support militates against India’s own long-standing declared positions against WMD proliferation and militarisation of space.

For instance, India was the first state in the world, not excluding America’s most loyal European allies, to greet Bush’s May 2001 speech announcing "Star Wars" or ballistic missile defence plans – which India had opposed for a quarter-century. Once Non-Aligned India also found itself on the same side as the US in opposing the Landmines Ban, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the US signed, unlike India), and the International Criminal Court, which both governments oppose tooth and nail.

On the issue of a possible war on Iraq, the Indian government (and the public) is worried at the likely negative fallout: a rise in the prices of oil – India now imports 70 percent of its requirements, unlike 10 years ago – , political instability in Iraq’s neighbourhood stretching all the way to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the impact of the war and the attendant turmoil on the economy of the Gulf region.

There are 3.1 million Indians in the Gulf – although only some 8,000 in Iraq itself – whose annual $6 billion-plus remittances are far more important to the Indian economy than all the foreign direct investment flows into the country put together.

Even more important is the likelihood that an unjust war on Iraq, lacking a casus belli, will trigger powerful resentment in the Arab and the larger Muslim world. This is bound to spill over into South Asia, fuelling extreme discontent and "terrorism" or irrational forms of violent action, thus further exacerbating an already volatile situation.

Logically, the calculus of self-interest alone should lead New Delhi to take a clear stand against a war on Iraq. India has also been a champion of multilateralism and of the principle that diplomatic means must be exhausted before force is used in international relations. This too would militate against supporting war on Iraq especially when Baghdad has agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors unconditionally.

However, India increasingly hesitates and vacillates on the issue because it is preoccupied with improving relations with the US, obsessed with Pakistan, and looks at the world through a prism to which the India-Pakistan-US triangle is absolutely central.

This is itself linked to India’s policy shift away from Non-Alignment over the past decade. This is explained by four factors: policy disorientation produced by the collapse of the Soviet Union; Rightward shifts in Indian society, economy and politics during the 1990s, which brought the Hindu neofascist Bharatiya Janata Party into power; India’s attempt to "normalise" itself after the opprobrium it attracted owing to the May 1998 nuclear tests; and the BJP’s very special pro-American orientation (going back to the Cold War days), reinforced by its uncritical support for corporate globalisation abroad and for neoliberal policies domestically.

Prior to September 11 last year, Indian leaders had hoped that the new "strategic partnership" between the two "natural allies" and great "democracies" would politically marginalise Pakistan, which after May 1998 faced aid withdrawal, capital flight and economic near-collapse. This would greatly help India end "cross-border terrorism", i.e. violence by militant groups, supported and armed by Islamabad, especially in Kashmir.

But with September 11, Pakistan under Gen Pervez Musharraf made a quick U-turn on its Afghanistan policy, ditched its creation, the Taliban, and became the US’s critical ally in the war to dislodge the Al-Qaeda-Taliban regime.

This caused much heartburn in New Delhi, which instead advocated an "alliance between democracies" to combat "terrorism" – in vain. It has since made the most of being "terrorism’s" biggest victim and tried to win the US’s support in fighting Pakistan. In December, it launched a huge mobilisation at the Pakistan border with 700,000 troops – in Rambo-style retaliation for an attack on its Parliament for which it blamed Islamabad.

The US has expressed verbal sympathy for India. It did not ask it to withdraw the troops at the border. But it has counselled restraint – pulling India and Pakistan from the brink of war, with a distinct potential for nuclear escalation.

There is resentment in New Delhi at this lack of "full-throated" US support to India and at America’s continued dependence on Gen. Musharraf for mopping up Al-Qaeda-Taliban elements. This is compounded by Washington’s reluctance to approve the sale of critical Israeli weapons to India – in spite of India’s tacit support for Ariel Sharon’s aggressive anti-Palestinian policies, in departure from its traditional stance in favour of a Palestinian state.

The crisis over Iraq amidst this situation has to an extent polarised Indian policy-makers and -shapers. On one side are those who would like to return to India’s "traditional" positions on international relations, with an emphasis on multilateralism and opposition to the use of force as the preferred method of resolving conflict. They would like New Delhi to distance itself from a war on Iraq. They hope that the European Union states, especially France and Germany, as well as China and Russia, will somehow restrain the US.

Ranged against them is the obsequiously pro-US lobby, which wants India to become America’s pro-active ally in anti-Iraq operations. This lobby argues that the "realities of power" dictate that India should accept that "multilateralism is dead" and fall in line with the world’s sole superpower.

This lobby is not unanimous in buying the US-UK argument that Iraq already possesses mass-destruction weapons or is about to get them. But it is united in asking that New Delhi declare its support to the US, no matter how blatantly it manipulates the Security Council.

Some elements in the group urged Vajpayee to openly support Bush’s "pre-emption" doctrine during his recent US visit – both to indicate loyalty to America and to create a precedent for a future Indian armed attack on Pakistan.

This is the first time that such views have been openly aired in the Indian media – an indication of the distance travelled since 1991 when it was hard to find any commentator even vaguely sympathetic to the official US viewpoint on the Gulf War.

The "traditional" or "middle path" view, opposing an attack on Iraq, may well prevail over the pro-America lobby in the short run at the level of proclaimed positions. But if the US moves towards full-fledged war, then what will matter more is what India does.

In 1991, India first cautioned against the Gulf War and temporarily maintained relative neutrality. This was itself a shift away from its support for Saddam Hussein even after he invaded Kuwait – graphically captured in the image of foreign minister I.K. Gujral hugging Saddam. But within a few months, the US prevailed upon India to signal its support for the war by refuelling US warplanes on Indian soil. The refuelling was not a strategic necessity, but a political move.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.