Its colonial past weighs on India's anti-Nato stance
The Middle East is crucial to the stability of South Asian currencies. It is the main source of remittances from nine million people from the subcontinent employed there. These countries seek access for its workers to the Middle East labour market, as well as the continued availability of oil.
In this regard, South Asia's desires are unlike those of Nato powers, who have large stakes in the oil industry in the region and are the destination for more than 90 per cent of the Middle East's surplus funds. These powers have a vital stake in the composition of the decision-making elites in these countries.
It is not hard to see why. South Asians in the region are most often employed in thousands of enterprises that are generally small. Therefore, unlike countries who invest billions of dollars in financial assets or weapons and must broker these agreements at the top, South Asian governments have little strategic concern for regime continuance or change.
Despite being the home of the world's most populous democracy, India has largely stayed silent during this year's political upheavals, the exception being concern for the safety of workers in countries hit by internal turmoil.
In the current UN Security Council, India is the only South Asian member. And on Libya, it has moved in sync with Russia, China and Brazil in abstaining from voting on UN Resolution 1973, which sanctioned the current Nato strikes on Libya.
Even after the passage of seven decades, India has not escaped the hangover of having been a British colony for two centuries, and officialdom in Delhi is therefore uneasy about the countries that implemented the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the region into British and French spheres of influence. Today, these same nations are leading the military charge against the Qaddafi regime, which India sees as legitimate under international law.
All BRIC countries would like Nato to immediately halt its operations within Libya, as these are clearly intended to push forward regime change, rather than simply protect civilians. Reports in India claim that several opposition fighters battling the Libyan army are Wahhabi, while a few even belong to Taliban-like cells that regard Col Muammar Qaddafi as an apostate for permitting women in Libya to work in the same locations as men and not wear the veil.
Like the Iran of 1979, Libya in 2011 is largely an educated and moderate society, and while few admire the Libyan strongman, they would rather he stay than a fundamentalist group take power in Tripoli or Benghazi.
The hesitation over Libya is in contrast to the enthusiasm shown by Indian officials over the changes in Egypt, a difference in stance that they explain by pointing to the absence of foreign intervention in that country.
After more than a millennium of close contact with the Arab world, there is a sense in the Ministry of External Affairs that continued air strikes on Libya may bring to the surface long-held reservations about western intervention, and may end up making Col Qaddafi a hero in much of his own country and the region for "standing up to the Sykes-Picot powers".
Given the close technological relationship that India maintains with Israel, there is also an anxiety that eruptions of violence in Gaza may lead to Israeli intervention. Should this happen, Nato's non-interventionist stance would create a perception of double standards, a view that is already prevalent in much of the Middle East.
Although India is itself a democracy, it has long held very cosy relationships with Gulf nations, especially with the UAE and Oman. Successive governments in Delhi see the present group of rulers as friends and allies, hence the lack of any appetite to push for regime change.
Also, any turmoil in the Middle East would immediately impact oil prices and the millions of Indian workers there, hence the hope that the existing regimes will be able to ride out the storms sweeping through their nations.
Given this antipathy towards regime change, it is not surprising that India is unsupportive of Nato's efforts against the Qaddafi regime. It fears that success in such an operation would have a domino effect on other, more friendly, rulers. "What is to stop Iran from helping Shiites in the east of Saudi Arabia or in Bahrain, or Syria doing the same in the monarchies, in retaliation for the covert backing given by the Nato countries to opposition elements in Libya and Syria?" a key intelligence official asked.
He, along with the rest of the Indian establishment, would like the international community to "avoid taking sides on what is an intra-Arab problem", advice that may not be palatable to the Nato powers. With bigger strategic stakes in the region, Indian officials are sceptical of the motivations of much of the Libyan opposition, claiming that the primary motivation to topple Col Qaddafi is not an urge to usher in democracy, but a desire to move Libya closer to Saudi Arabia in its laws and customs.
Given that Delhi has seen Wahhabism as a negative force, and has been very welcoming of the recent efforts of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to move away from exclusivism and promote inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation, there is anxiety that those who come after Col Qaddafi may in fact turn out to be even bigger dangers to the international community.
MD Nalapat is holds the Unesco peace chair at Manipal University and is a former editor of The Times of India
Updated: April 17, 2011 04:00 AM