| Going back a long way
Sonia Gandhi should have gone to Cairo for the funeral service of Yasser Arafat. There are relationships between leaders that transcend protocol or clinical diplomatic dissection. Arafat's friendship with India's 'royal family' by popular choice was one such.
The icon of the Palestinian movement referred to Indira Gandhi as his 'sister'. In later years, he called Rajiv Gandhi his 'brother'. It did not bother him one bit that if Indira Gandhi was his sister, her son could not be his brother. But that was Arafat. For him, logic had no place when it came to matters of the heart, even if it involved heads of state or government.
Even in his death, much of the American media goes out of its way to depict Arafat as a blood-thirsty terrorist, corrupt and selfish to the core. To those who knew him, such a demonization of Arafat paints a picture that has no resemblance to the man they had dealt with, either as the sole leader of the Palestinians or as a human being.
When India set up its representative office in Gaza, following the Oslo accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, India sent a young IFS officer who had a feel for the Arab world, its culture and politics, to open that office. T.S. Tirumurti cut his diplomatic teeth in Cairo, studying Arabic on his first posting at the American University there. He later dealt with Palestinian issues at India's permanent mission to the UN in Geneva.
When Tirumurti was half way into his tenure in Gaza, one day he went to Arafat's office to tell him that he was going away to Chennai for a few days to be at the 60th birthday of his father-in-law. Arafat's travels were always scheduled at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute. In this case, it so happened that after the Indian envoy had left his office, it was arranged that Arafat would rush to Delhi. Tirumurti promptly changed his travel plans and flew to Delhi for consultations on the Palestinian leader's visit. When Arafat touched down at Palam's VVIP landing area, he immediately spotted Tirumurti in his receiving line. Throwing protocol to the winds ' which was nothing unusual for Arafat ' he rushed to Tirumurti and demanded to know why he was in Delhi and not in Chennai with his father-in-law.
Embarrassed that this should happen in the presence of the foreign secretary and officers much senior to him, Tirumurti said he had changed his plans so that he could receive the PA chief in India. Arafat insisted that Tirumurti should immediately fly to Chennai if he was not late for the birthday celebrations. For him, the issue at hand was no longer India's relations with Palestine or west Asia. It was Tirumurti's family concerns that came first before weighty issues of statecraft or diplomacy.
During a decade that this columnist was based in the United Arab Emirates, a frequent visitor to Dubai was Romesh Bhandari, first as South Block's secretary who dealt with west Asia and later as foreign secretary. Beyond his official titles, Bhandari was a confidante of Indira Gandhi: several of his stopovers in Dubai were after meetings with Arafat as the prime minister's special envoy.
Bhandari is not someone who is easily moved, as those who knew him later as the tough and ruthless governor of Uttar Pradesh will testify. But once, in Dubai, Bhandari had tears in his eyes. He was in Tunis, where Arafat was living after having been driven out of Lebanon by the Syrians and the Israelis. In the middle of his meeting with Arafat, Bhandari got a message that his son had been critically taken ill. The meeting was cut short and Bhandari immediately flew back to India. When Arafat got word that Bhandari's son had succumbed to his illness, the Palestine Liberation Organization chief rushed back his ambassador to India ' who was in Tunis for consultations ' with specific instructions that the envoy should go to Bhandari's house in New Delhi directly from Palam airport and convey his sympathies. Arafat was a regular visitor to India in those days. When he went to Delhi shortly thereafter, right at the top of his itinerary was a visit to Bhandari's residence.
If Sonia Gandhi had gone to Cairo to pay her final respects to Arafat on behalf of the people of India, by that single gesture she would have compensated for a string of actions and inaction which has made India's relations with the Arab world a mere skeleton of what it once was. Contrary to what a large section of India's political leadership assumes, no Arab country objects to India's relations with Israel. In their myriad ways, through back channels and third countries, many Arab governments have their own contacts with Israel. The Arab disappointment is over India's stealth and its reluctance to make a clean breast of how and why India wants to deal with Israel, and over New Delhi's inability to compensate by stepping up its dealings with Arab countries as well.
Until last week, Arafat was the embodiment of this attitude in the Arab world. Just before P.V. Narasimha Rao upgraded India's relations with Israel and announced the setting up of embassies in each other's capital, he invited Arafat to visit India. What happened during Arafat's discussions with Indian leaders during that visit is 'Top Secret' in the archives of the ministry of external affairs, but Sonia Gandhi should have no difficulty in seeing the minutes of those meetings. In any case, India's main interlocutor at those meetings was J.N. Dixit, now national security adviser, who would willingly brief the United Progressive Alliance chief on this subject.
Dixit and Rao told Arafat that it would be advantageous for the Palestinians if India had influence in Tel Aviv. India could then bring that influence to bear on the Israelis in any peace negotiations on west Asia; India could be an honest broker in at least some ways, however small, in solving the Arab-Israeli imbroglio. Arafat was enthusiastic about the idea and he actually supported Rao's proposals for normalizing India's relations with Israel.
In the years that followed, India reneged on that promise. What is more, India has underestimated its influence in Israel and has failed to engage Tel Aviv on the larger issues affecting west Asia, opting for the easy way out by acquiescing in Israel's actions. The unkindest cut of all was when South Block decided some time ago to throw out Khalid el Sheikh, the Palestine envoy in New Delhi, who had been in India since 1988 and would have been the dean of New Delhi's diplomatic corps if he did not opt out of that role for obvious reasons.
An argument in South Block against Sonia Gandhi's visit to Cairo was that she had no position in the government and, therefore, she would not get the kind of importance that the leader of India's ruling apparatus deserved. Sonia Gandhi ought to know from her experience that neither leadership nor importance is owed to positions in government, although the MEA's political leadership is entitled to such a bureaucratic and myopic view.
In 1990, Rajiv Gandhi was no longer prime minister, but he chose to attend Namibia's independence celebrations. Indeed, at the formal independence function, he got greater prominence than V.P. Singh, then prime minister, because the master of ceremonies mistook the description of Rajiv by the Indian mission in Windhoek as 'ex-prime minister' and introduced him to the audience as India's 'executive prime minister'.
South Block's political leadership found several other excuses to argue against Sonia's trip to Cairo. These excuses hold no water when it is recalled that similar excuses could have been made against her late husband's trip to Namibia as well. But Rajiv found a way to overcome all of them. In fact, he hopped on a plane provided by Zambia's then president, Kenneth Kaunda, and flew into Windhoek with Kaunda. He flew out on another aircraft with Tiny Rowland, the British mining magnate with extensive interests and influence in Africa. Hopefully, Sonia will not put up with similar excuses and will attend another funeral, like Arafat's, when the inevitable happens ' namely, that of Fidel Castro, another friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and of India.