It remains to be seen how adversely New Delhi’s decision not to send Indian troops for the stabilization of Iraq will affect India’s relations with the United States of America. Although Washington has publicly sought to soften the impact of India’s announcement, there is no doubt that there will be consequences, not immediately obvious, for the future of bilateral ties. New Delhi’s decision has once again shown that major foreign policy decisions in India are still not primarily motivated by considerations of realpolitik. True, the merits and demerits of sending Indian soldiers to Iraq have been debated in painful detail over the past weeks. Public debate, within the media and academic fora, has been matched by intensive consultations within the concerned committees of the Indian government. But the broad contours of the debate have revealed that domestic politics and a desire to occupy the high moral ground are more important in shaping foreign policy than other reasons.
The most important of the government’s reasons seems to have been the fear that there could be casualties among the Indian armed forces sent to Iraq, given the unstable situation in the country. This fear is genuine and indeed, American soldiers are being targeted by rebel groups or individual snipers. But surely this is not reason enough to prevent a major foreign policy decision in the national interest. Indian soldiers have earlier been sent to African states, to keep the peace in violent civil war situations. There have been many casualties then, but this has rarely caused much domestic commotion. Despite the risks involved, the number of Indian applicants for United Nations peacekeeping operations is far higher than the number of places available. Moreover, New Delhi could have negotiated to ensure that Indian forces would operate in the less risky areas of Iraq. The argument that India would be involved in operations even while the country is under virtual American control carries some weight, but is still not convincing. The recent creation of a governing council in Iraq does provide a cover, if only a fig leaf, to give legitimacy to an Indian presence.
Surely, India must recognize that UN legitimacy would merely signify consensus amongst the great powers rather than any real judgment about the justice of the mission. It is unlikely that the Indian presence would have alienated the Iraqi people or other Muslim countries, especially if New Delhi had packaged it as a humanitarian mission. Given that Pakistan has, in principle, agreed to send its troops would suggest that the impact of the decision on the subcontinent’s Muslims too would have been minimal. India has taken the easy way out and not sought to build a domestic consensus on the issue. Sending soldiers could have provided the defining momentum in India-US relations. It is precisely because the US requires legitimacy for its presence in Iraq that it was seeking troops from other countries. New Delhi would have thus earned considerable leverage vis-a-vis the US, and also demonstrated that its foreign policy had come of age.