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THE ACCIDENTAL PRESIDENT

- Malappuram and the Arab world

The remote hamlet of Malappuram in Kerala is an unlikely site for recalling the siege of Homs, the long battle for Syria’s soul, now idolized in a documentary by the Damascus-born film-maker, Talal Derki, which received international acclaim, including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which has seen many imponderables, this is what stands out in the swansong fight for the seat by E. Ahamed, the 76-year-old minister of state for external affairs. But deep down, the constituency’s somnolent poll campaign, whose outcome is not in doubt, is a fight for the legacy of the Indian Union Muslim League, of which he is accidentally the so-called national president. Ahamed’s presence in this recently reconstituted Lok Sabha seat is an uneasy reminder of a huge disconnection between the country’s self-styled Muslim leadership and the aspirations of a community that is used to calling itself a minority, an idea which none other than the longest serving foreign minister in the world, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al Faisal, roundly rejected some years ago to the huge embarrassment of those in South Asia, especially in Pakistan, who have made their careers and policy out of such a premise.

I remember a meeting with Ahamed in the waiting room of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s residence, 7 Race Course Road, in the first half of December 1992, a few days after the demolition of Babri Masjid. He had gone there to meet Rao in secret. The conventional wisdom among many Muslims at that time was that Rao was complicit in the demolition of the mosque by his typical inaction, which made the demolition possible.

I was hanging around 7 RCR, trying to pick up nuggets of information that would provide valuable insights into the goings on at the highest level of government in a month in which many people believed that the country had crossed the Caesarian Rubicon and was teetering on the edge of a precipice. Some long-standing contacts made it possible to do that, just as it was possible to hang around the suite of the Congress kingmaker and Kerala chief minister, K. Karunakaran, in Kerala House, where many decisions in that year had originated.

Ahamed looked a very worried man. He was surprised to run unexpectedly into a journalist in the prime minister’s waiting room on this secret expedition. He probably decided, therefore, that it was best to take me into confidence, rather than risk being exposed. Ahamed told me that it was imperative to work with Rao, otherwise Muslims may irretrievably slip into radical influence, from which there was no turning back as the experience in countries like Algeria had shown. The inverse of this experience was Morocco, Ahamed told me as he waited to be summoned by the prime minister.

This, I thought, was a sensible man speaking on a very sensitive subject. But the same Ahamed has come a long way in this election. Actually, well before the election, after his unwise choice by the United Progressive Alliance leadership as the minister in charge of India’s relations with the Islamic world, the Gulf states in particular.

Some time ago, the same Ahamed had sent unauthorized and arbitrary messages to Indian missions to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, asking diplomats there to go and tell UN officials at the highest level, suo motu, that Bahrain was a country that was following international norms of acceptable behaviour, and was not violating any human rights. Clearly, it was the nadir for a man who once seemed to embrace a nobler vision. Luckily for the country, there were officials in both Geneva and New York who put their integrity over expediency and decided to challenge the minister. One of them, from Geneva, where the UN human rights council is located, flew down to New Delhi and brought Ahamed’s message to the notice of his superiors. Ahamed was promptly pulled up and his instructions were rescinded.

Ahamed had similarly attempted to obfuscate Indian policy on Syria during a critical phase of the conflict there. India had a clear and independent track on Syria in the early stages of the conflict. That was when Ahamed was away from South Block between April 2009 and January 2011 as minister of state for railways under Mamata Banerjee, the cabinet minister for railways. In January that year, he was again made minister of state for external affairs.

Within a few months, when Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, arrived in New Delhi, Mekdad was shocked out of his wits to get an earful from the Indians on President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s policies and on his fight to prevent Islamists and terrorists taking over Syria in a repeat of what happened in Libya. At a time when the UPA government was steadily drifting towards a vacuum and inaction that became its hallmark in the last phase of its second term, Ahamed clearly succeeded in steering New Delhi’s policy on the Levant closer towards the Saudi and Qatari positions.

Wiser heads prevailed in South Block and were able to prevent the country from totally joining the Western bandwagon on Syria, but the sheen of an independent policy, when New Delhi was in a position to make independent choices by sending a special envoy to Damascus and similar initiatives, became things of the past.

There have since been pretences of independence, such as in a decision to take part in a 2012 Syria peace conference held in Tehran, but that decision, for example, was interpreted more as an expedient way of clearing the cobwebs in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s path to the summit meeting of the non-aligned movement under the Iranian leadership of NAM in August that year.

When the Muslim League’s leadership concluded in the run up to the Lok Sabha election that Ahamed must be retired and not given the Malappuram seat for re-election, his advanced age was only an honourable excuse. The real reason for reaching such a conclusion was Ahamed’s fraternization with repressive regimes in the Gulf. The Muslims on the ground in the Malabar region of Kerala have what can be described as an ‘aam aadmi’ approach to the Arab Spring, even when their interests as non-resident Indians in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia are secured by stability in the Gulf region.

But, in the end, the party’s leaders gave in for reasons that can only be speculated on and allowed Ahamed to have his swansong in this election. There is little doubt about the result in Malappuram. Ahamed has never lost an election since he first contested for the state assembly as far back as 1967. This will be his seventh victory in elections to the Lok Sabha, a record that only a few politicians can match. But in nominating Ahamed for the Malappuram seat, the party state leadership’s worst fears became a reality. The constituency is now littered by billboards of monarchs like Hamad bin Isa bin Salman of the al Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for 231 years and has put down any demand for political reform with a heavy hand. And of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world named after a ruling family in spite of being a Holy Land for Muslims all over the world.

Ahamed is often referred to as the accidental president of the Indian Union Muslim League because it is only a state party according to the election commission. Its state unit president, Sayyid Hyderali Shihab Thangal, has his ear to the ground and his feet firmly planted in Kerala’s Muslim strongholds. If anyone other than Ahamed contested from Malappuram this largely rural hamlet would not have been recreated in the image of the Arab world in this election.