India's Deafening Silence On The Tumult In The Arab World
Amb Satish Chandra, Vice Chairman, VIF

“The worst place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral during a moral crisis”: Dante

At a time when there is great tumult in the entire Arab world, India’s continuing silence on the developments in a region of critical strategic and political importance is not just inexplicable but also deafening. Whether this is borne out of abundant caution or a natural proclivity for fence sitting until the situation crystallises, or even the result of an increasing tendency in Indian diplomacy to wait for a cue from the Western world (read USA), is not quite clear. Whatever the case, given India’s immense political and economic stakes in West Asia and North Africa, there is a need to articulate India’s policy and position on the events sweeping through the Arab world. The big challenge for Indian diplomacy today is to correctly read the unfolding events across the Arab world and take positions that protect India’s vital national interests. In other words, India will have to identify with the popular aspirations of the peoples, but without burning its bridges with the rulers and establishments of these countries. Where the two are irreconcilable the longer term interests of India would demand that it is perceived to be on the side of history rather than against it.

It is quite clear by now that the uprising in Tunisia has unleashed a domino effect that is being felt across the length and breadth of the entire Arab world. From Morocco to Iran and from Syria to Yemen, autocratic and authoritarian regimes are being challenged by their peoples like never before. While strongmen in Tunisia and Egypt have been swept aside by peoples uprising, potentates in Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Bahrain are appearing increasing shaky. Other countries like Morocco, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia have also seen protests, which could easily snowball into uprisings. There appear to be two broad options before the rulers in the Arab world: either introduce political reform or else resort to even greater repression.

Chances are that while some rulers will take the reform road, others will prefer to take the repressive path. There is however no guarantee as to what will work in which country. This means that while reforms will successfully lead to an orderly transition to a more liberal, open and progressive order in some countries, it could just as well unravel the delicate social and political balance in other countries. Similarly, repression might be successful in stalling cries for reform and bottling up dissent in some countries for some more time, but could also lead to greater chaos and anarchy in other countries.

That there is no one-size-fits-all solution available means that India too must avoid diplomatic prescriptions of the one-size-fits-all variety. This means Indian diplomacy will have to correctly read the tea leaves and make assessments as to what will happen where, on the basis of which the Indian government will have to take more forthright positions. As a rule of thumb it should weigh in against regimes which use brute force to repress liberal peoples movements enjoying widespread support but should be more restrained in this regard where the regime is solidly moored and uses strong arm tactics merely to keep radical elements at bay. It may be argued that such moves by India and other countries could be counterproductive and promote regime changes which may be detrimental to stability or lead to the establishment of fundamentalist Islamic rule. This is, of course, a possibility. However, such a possibility will always be there whether or not countries like India take positions or not.

The advantage of taking the high ground in such situations is that India’s standing in local perceptions, no matter which regime finally establishes itself, will be positive. We must never forget the fact that India is so admired around the world because it’s USP is its longstanding commitment to democracy and pluralism. This is what makes us so different from China and so much enhances our soft power and makes it critical for us to speak out against repression and violence. But there is also no denying the fact that there are too many permutations and combinations in each country and India would need to treat each country sui generis because despite the cultural and civilizational unity of the Arab world, the political dynamics and drivers in every Arab country are different and will play a critical role in determining the political outcome therein. Moreover, India’s relations with country and its regime are different and must inevitably affect the position it takes which in turn cannot remain uninfluenced by an assessment of the impact that it would have on the Indian community and its economic interests there.

As things stand, the situation in the entire Arab world remains very fluid and it is not quite clear which regimes will retain their control and which will be replaced. Where regimes are replaced, what will they be replaced by is another question which has no easy and ready answer. Will the transitions be smooth or will there be great chaos and anarchy leading to unravelling of the state which then either breaks into new states or gives way to a tribal confederacy or descends into a Somalia type of warlordism? Are the uprisings being driven by Islamism or by the desire for greater political freedom and will the autocracies give way to democratic forces or to Islamists? Or will it be merely a change of face, with one autocrat being replaced by his clone with no change in the ‘system’? Will Kingdoms like Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain plough a different political trajectory from dictatorships like Yemen, Libya and Syria? These and numerous such questions are what the Indian diplomats and academics should be answering to help the government come up with a cogent and coherent policy, as well as response, to the unfolding situation.

Despite the self-inflicted shrinking role of Indian diplomacy in global politics which is probably a fallout of the shift in focus to economic diplomacy and the neglect of all other aspects of international diplomacy, India cannot afford to be a mute spectator of developments in the Arab world. Merely issuing pro forma statements – expressing ‘pain and shock’ over detention and attack on journalists, ‘hoping’ that the situation in Egypt is ‘resolved in a peaceful manner, in the best interests of the people of Egypt’ and then ‘welcoming’ the decision of Hosni Mubarak to resign and ‘welcoming the commitment of the Supreme Council...to establish and open and democratic framework of governance’ – is hardly enough, even less so given the fact that many Arab nations look to India as a friend, philosopher and guide to make a transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Instead of banal statements, India probably needs to take a more pro-active stance to assist in this transition process, because the shape of future dispensations in the Arab world will have a significant bearing on the India’s own stability, security and economic well-being.

For over millennia, India has felt the impact of every major political development in the Arab world. In today’s globalised world, the effects of changes in West Asia and North Africa are likely to be even more immediate and far-reaching. The bulk of India’s fuel supplies come from this region. Millions of Indian expatriates are settled in these countries from where they send money back home. The Arab world is one of India’s largest export markets. Radicalisation in this region could also have an impact on the Indian Muslims.

The challenge for India is therefore to forge a policy that balances its economic and political interests (including its extremely beneficial ties with Israel) with its moral and ideological commitment to a democratic, pluralistic and progressive political system. Equally important, such a policy will need to be tailored to the unique circumstances prevailing in each of the countries of the region. But being a mealy mouthed fence sitter is not an option for a country aspiring to play a major role on the world stage.

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Published date : 27 February, 2011

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