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India's decision time on Iraq

By C. Raja Mohan

NEW DELHI May 25. If he takes the bold decision to send Indian troops into Iraq, the political standing of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, could dramatically rise when he engages many of the world's important leaders this week.

An India that would take military responsibility to administer an entire sector in Iraq will signal to the world that New Delhi has finally broken out of the traditionally limiting political confines of the subcontinent.

Until now the world had acknowledged India as a South Asian power. New Delhi has taken security responsibilities in the subcontinent extending protection to friendly smaller states and confronting adversaries where needed.

When it used force in the subcontinent or occasionally changed regimes in its immediate neighbourhood, India never sought the political cover of the United Nations.

India often flexed its military muscle in the subcontinent despite significant opposition from the U.N.

In liberating Bangladesh or in sending troops to Sri Lanka, India did not ask for enabling resolutions at the U.N. It exercised its own strategic judgment and took political risks in what it saw as its sphere of influence.

India's insistence on the U.N. fig leaf before deciding to send troops into Iraq, reflects the political caution in New Delhi in entering a volatile region — the Persian Gulf — it had largely kept itself out since Independence. It has very little to with any theological commitment in New Delhi to the U.N.

Indian troops in the past operated beyond South Asia only under the U.N. mandate, because New Delhi did not want to get involved in the high politics of conflict management away from its immediate neighbourhood.

Such an approach was risk free while demonstrating India's capabilities to contribute to international peace and security. In Iraq, India is being invited to take a political risk that involves significant strategic rewards.

Underlying the final decision by India to send a large force into Iraq will be the political readiness in New Delhi to exercise its military power beyond the subcontinent. An India that evades this opportunity will put out the word that it is not yet prepared to break out of the narrow South Asian political box.

***

The very prospect of India sending its troops into Iraq has apparently given it a voice in shaping the unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq last week. Quiet consultations between New Delhi and Washington led to incorporating three of Indian concerns into the resolution.

These related to language on a formal invitation by the U.N. on all member states to contribute to the stabilisation of Iraq, a political differentiation between the occupation forces of the U.S. and the U.K. on the one hand and others contributing to the effort, and finally the requirement on periodic reporting to the U.N. on the situation in the Gulf country.

A large military contingent in Iraq, and a major diplomatic presence that will be demanded in turn, could let India gain considerable say on how the political economy of Iraq is managed in the immediate future.

***

The question of Tibet always lingers uncomfortably in the air whenever the top leaders of India and China meet.

As Mr. Vajpayee prepares to meet the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, in the next few days in Europe and prepares to travel to China next month, he has some good news.

A delegation from the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual head of the Tibetan people, headed to Beijing over the weekend for talks with Chinese officials.

It is led by Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, who is the special envoy of the Dalai Lama and represents him in Washington. Mr. Gyari's second visit to China in less than a year reflects the current positive atmospherics between Beijing and in Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives.

Ending years of bitterness the two sides are exploring ways to initiate a formal dialogue. Last July, China had received Gyalo Thondup, elder brother of the Dalai Lama, in Tibet for the first time in decades. Mr. Thondup's visit to Tibet was followed by a Mr. Gyari's delegation in September.

The Dalai Lama is pleased at the turn of events and "expresses his desire to move this process forward to substantive negotiations on the Tibet problem,'' according to his office in Dharamsala.

Any movement towards a dialogue between exiled Tibetan leadership and Beijing feeds positively into the Sino-Indian relations and lightens the political shadow that Tibet has cast for so long over the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Beijing.

***

Sensing the new opportunity in Beijing, the Dalai Lama, has declined an invitation from the Taiwanese President, Chen Shui-bian.

The Dalai Lama's earlier visits to Taiwan in 1997 and 2001 had angered Beijing.

The Dalai Lama recognises that a visit to Taiwan at this point of time, when the prospects of formal dialogue with Beijing have improved, might send wrong signals to the new Chinese leadership.

Tibetan sources also indicate that if and when the Dalai Lama makes a visit to Taiwan in the future, it will be purely for religious purposes.

One of the pre-conditions imposed by China for a formal dialogue with the Tibetan exiles is that the Dalai Lama must declare that Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China.

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