This is the story of how, in its second month in office, Narendra Modi’s nascent government almost scored a win that might have equalled the World Cup in football and then lost it like Argentina in the final lap. But unlike the losers in this year’s World Cup final, Modi’s government did not miss opportunities. It scored a deliberate self-goal after a triumph in the semi-finals and then shifted the goalposts making it harder for it to triumph in the final match. The temptation to use football metaphors here is irresistible. During a week when championships, goals and victories are talking points everywhere, diplomacy need not be exempt from the norm. Given that, the thread of this column resonates totally with sentiment in Argentina associated with football’s biggest event this week.
The Modi government’s successful repatriation of nearly 50 captive nurses from Iraq, working perfectly in tandem with the Congress-led government in Kerala, is a score in diplomacy that easily rivals any comparable success in a global sporting event like the one the world watched in wonder this week. Indian diplomacy has few equals elsewhere in pulling off such a feat at a time when much of the world is confounded about how to deal with a volatile Iraq teetering on the edge of a precipice.
What India has achieved with the safe return of its nurses is, however, a job half done. Its final match is yet to be played in Iraq, to use football language once again: the prize cup would be the repatriation as well of about two score construction workers in Mosul of whom little has been heard through the celebrations over the liberation and homecoming of the women, almost all of them from Kerala.
Instead of continuing to hold the fragile threads that secured the nurses’ release, and carefully working on those threads to the logical end of a safe passage for all Indians, the self-goal came when an unedifying competition erupted within the top echelons of the Modi government to claim credit for the remarkable feat of safely getting the nurses home. Through a series of orchestrated leaks and media plants, the days immediately following the semi-final victory, so to speak, witnessed a scramble to spin theories about who did what and why the nurses were released by their captors.
At the same time, in the real world of Indian diplomacy, those who did their utmost to bring about a happy end to the travails of the nurses have been discreet. The real actors in the complex plot are not in any rush to claim credit: instead they are continuing their efforts, silently, to complete their job of bringing home the Mosul labourers, which makes it easier for self- appointed spin masters to spread misinformation.
The most fascinating aspect of the Modi government’s success in the mess that is currently Iraq is that many of the consequences in the drama involving the nurses were actually unintended. For instance, it turned out to be fortuitous for India as it divined ways to deal with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that one of ISIL’s leaders happens to be a man by the name of Izzat Ibrahim. Ibrahim was once one of the most feared men in Baathist Party-ruled Iraq: he was Saddam Hussain’s interior minister, a post from where he could make any number of his enemies — or even those whom he imagined were his enemies — simply disappear without a trace or question. Ibrahim also happens to have a lot of respect for India and Indians like most of the Baath Party leaders who were in Saddam’s inner circle — or outermost circles, for that matter — in those heady years of Indo-Iraqi friendship. By no stretch of imagination is Ibrahim an Islamist. It is even possible given what Saddam’s Iraq used to be that this man had no god whom he feared or looked up to.
Many years ago, I recall a visit to New Delhi by Saadoun Hammadi, who was Speaker of Saddam’s Parliament from 1996 until the American attack on Iraq in 2003, which brought about regime change. Although that legislature itself was a rubber-stamp body, its Speaker was always a tried and trusted aide to the dictator if only because the speaker was often the regime’s ‘democratic’ face at international fora of all sorts. On this occasion, Hammadi had travelled to the national capital on Saddam’s specific instructions to thank Indian leaders for some act or other of goodwill, which used to be common in those days.
Standing next to me at a reception for this speaker was the head of ONGC Videsh, the state-owned oil exploration undertaking that had huge stakes in Iraq, then the second biggest source of India’s considerable oil imports. The Indian official was actively lobbying around and telling anyone who chose to listen that New Delhi should help with Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme. Many of those who heard the public sector unit head were shocked beyond belief, but it was also a fact that many people in New Delhi then shared such a view.
Men like Ibrahim who are now behind the ISIL in cities like Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit — where the nurses were held — are well aware of such Indian ‘goodwill’ for Iraq. The US-educated Hammadi, himself a Shia, was released from an American prison in Baghdad’s famous “green zone” only nine months after Saddam’s overthrow. The Americans are believed to have helped him to settle down in Qatar from where a lot of the ISIL’s command strings are now being pulled. Although Hammadi died in a German hospital after a brief illness in 2007, some of his lieutenants are still in Doha.
Ibrahim and Hammadi, or anyone else who was a part of Saddam’s coterie, have never forgotten that when Iraq had its back to the wall after invading and subduing tiny but oil-rich Kuwait, India was one of three countries in the world that supported the conquest of Kuwait. It does not matter that the prime minister then was V.P. Singh, and that his external affairs minister was I.K. Gujral.
Gujral went to Baghdad and hugged Saddam, images of which were repeatedly shown on Iraqi television as proof that their country was not isolated if India, a founding member of the non-aligned movement, was with Saddam in his conquest. The result was unintended, but the fact today is that remnants of Saddam’s army are a part of the ISIL’s fighting force. At the same time, ISIL’s leaders include men who were prominent in Saddam’s set up.
The success in bringing back the nurses may have many false claimants within the Modi government, but the fact is that India continues to have a reservoir of friends across the board in Iraq and a fund of goodwill that spans that country’s sectarian divide and tribal fault-lines. These resources were in full play ten years ago, when three Indian drivers were kidnapped in Fallujah causing a national uproar. Then, too, India was able to negotiate the release of the drivers: a ransom was paid, but that payment was made by the Kuwaiti company, which had sent the drivers into Iraq in the first place, putting their lives at risk.
The lesson from those negotiations, and from the more recent ones involving nurses, is that India needs to build on its considerable resources in Iraq and not just step back because of the strife and violence there. Iraq is a country with promise and India may be one of the few outside forces that may have persuasive influence there in the long term if New Delhi is patient. But it calls for quiet and resolute work, not claims of credit for short term turf gains within the government as seen in recent days.