The statement of the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on the continuing crises in the Persian Gulf reflects the dilemmas that India is faced with in crafting and putting forward a coherent policy on the issue. On the one hand, the prime minister expressed grave reservations against any unilateral action by the United States of America against Iraq. Mr Vajpayee also ruled out supporting a change of Mr Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq by external forces. In addition, Mr Vajpayee indicated that the United Nations security council was the only legitimate body to authorize the use of force against Iraq. On the other hand, however, Mr Vajpayee did not rule out the possibility of India allowing its facilities, including military bases, to be used in case of a war in the Gulf. The prime minister also articulated India’s unhappiness with Iraq’s lack of cooperation in the process of disarmament. The Indian leader argued that Iraq needs to cooperate more actively with the inspection process and comply with all relevant security council resolutions, including the most recent resolution 1441.
This ambiguity in Mr Vajpayee’s remarks reflects the tension within India’s policy, which has been evident for some time now. As is well known, India has important strategic interests in the Gulf. In case of a war, there is the likelihood of a disruption in oil supplies and an escalation of prices. This will most certainly have an adverse impact on the Indian economy. There is also a large Indian expatriate workforce all over west Asia, which could be faced with great uncertainty in case of a military conflict. In addition, there are strong domestic voices that are opposed to use of force in Iraq. These include voices from the left, from within the Congress, as well from within the mainstream of the Muslim community in the country. All these factors demand a cautious approach from New Delhi. However, India’s relations with the US are stronger today than they have been in the past, and it would be most unfortunate if these relations are derailed because of differences between New Delhi and Washington over the crisis in Iraq. In any case, there is almost an inevitability of military conflict and to oppose the US could be counter-productive in the long run. New Delhi’s ambiguous stand may, however, no longer remain so if Washington were to assure India that its oil supplies would not be disrupted and Indian companies may have a role to play in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. Finally, of course, the US can do well to share with its friends and allies, including India, its future vision for west Asia. This could well lessen disquiet about US polices within India and elsewhere, particularly among the US’s staunchest allies. Washington does need to convince the world that short-term considerations of expediency and opportunism are not defining its policies towards arguably the most complex region in the world.