New Delhi, June 16: For some at South Block, the Fifa World Cup isn’t just about football — the premier sporting event is bringing with it hard work.
India’s foreign policy establishment is grappling with twin diplomatic quandaries rooted in the ongoing World Cup in Brazil and the 2022 edition in Qatar that it will need to deftly dribble through to juggle domestic expectations and strategic interests.
Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef has invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi among leaders from at least 20 countries to attend the final of the World Cup at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium — one of football’s iconic arenas — on July 14.
But senior officials have told The Telegraph that Modi’s attendance at the match is uncertain because of the budget session of Parliament that will be on at the time, even though the Prime Minister is expected to attend a multilateral meet of the Brics grouping in Brazil two days later.
And today, India implicitly accepted worries about the safety of its nationals in Qatar, many working in construction projects linked to the World Cup, amid a growing international cloud over the country’s acceptability as a host for the event because of poor safety standards. The Indian embassy in Doha released mobile phone numbers of officers specially tasked to address any labour-related concerns of nationals in Qatar round-the-clock.
But the foreign office continues to maintain that Qatar, one of India’s fastest growing crude oil suppliers, has done its best to help Indian citizens in distress.
“When you’re dealing with important allies, such quandaries are always complex,” a senior official said. “There’s no easy choice — but the challenge is to safeguard domestic priorities without suffering diplomatic damage.”
The meet of top leaders from the Brics — an acronym for the grouping of emerging economies consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — is scheduled for July 15-17 at the Brazilian port city of Fortaleza. The government has officially not confirmed Modi’s attendance at the Brics meet. But he is expected to travel to Brazil for the meet — it will be Modi’s first opportunity as Prime Minister to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Roussef and South African President Jacob Zuma, all of whom are attending.
But the Modi government’s first budget session in Parliament is expected to begin in the second week of July and it may be difficult for the Prime Minister to stay away from the House any longer than is absolutely essential, officials said. “That’s what is holding us back from committing yet,” an official said.
Attending the World Cup final will allow Modi to share a platform with leaders from multiple countries outside the Brics — it would be his first such opportunity. But the Prime Minister will need to leave two days earlier than he would have to for the Brics summit.
India’s quandary over Qatar is as complex. Over 500,000 Indian nationals work in Qatar — constituting the single largest immigrant community in the country of two million. New Delhi needs good relations with Qatar to assist these immigrants, also a crucial source of remittances. Over the past two years, as India cut its oil imports from Iran, it increasingly turned to Qatar for crude.
But Indian embassy figures that show over 700 Indians have died in Qatar since 2010, when the country was awarded the World Cup, have along with a bribery scandal emerged flashpoints in a global debate over whether the Gulf country should be allowed to host the event. Human rights groups have demanded that Fifa — the world football authority — withdraw the World Cup from Qatar.
India has so far refused to get drawn into the debate — and has pointed to its massive population in Qatar to suggest that the rate of fatalities of its nationals is nor unusually high. But some families have questioned India’s efforts at securing the safety of its nationals — and the helplines announced on Monday are attempts at demonstrating that the embassy has done its best.
“To think that India — or Indian diplomats — would not be the utmost to safeguard the interests of its nationals in any country abroad is plain ridiculous,” a diplomat, who has served in Qatar but requested anonymity because he is now serving elsewhere, said. “But diplomacy is also about managing perceptions — and that’s what we’re fighting here.”