November 4, 2005Foreign Affairs

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

New in Baghdad and looking for direction

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

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 UPAs 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.

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