In Iraq Crisis, Modi Sarkar's First Test

Published: July 07, 2014 13:15 IST
(Kumar Ketkar is a senior journalist, political commentator, globe trotter and author. He has covered all Indian elections since 1971 and significant international events. He is a frequent participant on TV debates.)

Within a month of coming to power, the Modi sarkar had its first encounter with forces which are beyond the control of New Delhi. Thousands of Indians who work in war-torn Iraq were caught in the mayhem, murder and massacre. Sushma Swaraj had just begun to enjoy the photo opportunities that come along with the glamorous Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) when the internecine war between the Shias and the Sunnis in Iraq burst onto the global scene. The bloody politics of vendetta triggered panic waves not only in the puppet Shia regime of the United States, but also in the White House. It was inevitable that  South Block too would be shaken. The challenge was at once diplomatic and economic as well as logistic and human.

The crude prices shooting up to $120 per barrel was not Ms Sushma's concern. The cascading effect of that price rise would be taken care of by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. She had to contend with the frightened and grief-stricken family members of the workers in Iraq who descended on her residence in hundreds.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi left the matter with her and the bureaucrats of the MEA. He has already established a style of "governance through apparatchik." But this crisis required compassion and diplomacy.

India is friendly with today's Iraq government which is Shia and in the past, India had been friendly with the Saddam Hussein-led Sunni establishment. A catch-22 situation is supposed to be a paradoxical situation from which one cannot escape because of contradictory rules or predicaments. The Americans never appreciated India's friendly relationship with the Saddam regime, particularly since the 9/11 attack on the American soil. The following American military action devastated Iraq as a revenge, apprehended Saddam and finally got him executed in 2006.

Now the nemesis has caught up with them. Sunni rebels executed the judge who had convicted Saddam. These aggressive Sunni forces were not hostile to India. India's diplomats quickly established contacts within the Sunni forces marching towards Baghdad. That was facilitated by the business community, contractors and traders, who have been working there for decades. Also helpful was the fact that the majority of  Indian Muslims are Sunni. That bond transcends geographical boundaries. But here the catch was that India is also friendly with Shia Iran which has virtually declared war with the advancing Sunni forces. The diplomatic trapeze was such that without hurting the Shia sentiment, the Sunni leaders had to be approached.

But the External Affairs Ministry has handled in the past quite a few such complex situations. The crisis in the Gulf in the late seventies, the Iran-Iraq war 1980-1989, the first Gulf War of 1991, the second Gulf War in 2004, the huge and violent civil strife in Egypt in 2011, the Libyan civil war, the ongoing Syrian rebellion and some other conflicts in the region have made our MEA resilient and professional. Their logistic preparation of bringing back Indians trapped in  troubled lands is almost ever-ready.

In fact, rarely is our national airline  given credit for the magnificent job that they have always done in rescuing Indians and flying them back.

The problem is not over, though the nearly 40 nurses caught in the cauldron have been brought back home. There are still some 900 people who want to come back and there are some workers who are held hostage, whose whereabouts are not known. The brutality of the war raging there is such that nobody can give assurances of life and safety. Yet, the MEA, their local non-diplomatic contacts, the intelligence network, the officers on duty carrying out the thankless job of managing complex logistics and the overall political management has been smooth by and large.

However, let it also be noted that the Modi sarkar learnt its first  lesson in governance - that one does not control or command all  global or internal forces, be they of international crude price or of human tragedy beyond the borders. But for the Indian system, which has handled several such crises, this could not have been taken in stride.

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