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Drama and Indira thaw

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K.P. NAYAR   |   Published 21.10.11, 12:00 AM

Washington, Oct. 20: Muammar Gaddafi was probably the last among the offspring of the decolonisation process in the 1960s who knew how to tug at Indira Gandhi’s heartstrings.

The late Prime Minister had a weakness for such leaders both as the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and because Indira Gandhi herself was, in a sense, a product of the era of decolonisation.

But she was also a stickler for protocol and etiquette. In 1983, Col. Gaddafi sent Maj. Abdel Salam Jalloud, his closest friend from their days at the military academy of Benghazi, to New Delhi to represent Libya at the seventh non-aligned summit under her leadership.

Jalloud had been Prime Minister in the early days of Gaddafi’s revolution. As the Libyan state was systematically dismantled, Jalloud was made “Deputy Chairman of the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council”, the real government of that unpredictable country. In effect, he was second in importance only to Gaddafi himself.

Jalloud arrived in New Delhi and like many Arab delegations to the 1983 summit, heady with their new oil riches and the illusion that they would soon drive the Israelis into the sea, made a spectacle of himself.

He then proceeded to Hyderabad where he gave short shrift to protocol and endangered his own security as a state guest by abruptly getting off his vehicle and dancing on the roof of a car in front of Charminar, surrounded by huge crowds that are never in short supply in the Old City.

Indira Gandhi was furious when pictures of a dancing Jalloud atop a state car appeared in the newspapers. Not only because he had violated his hosts, but also because Jalloud’s behaviour was seen as Libya’s attempt to court Indian Muslims by going behind the backs of the state and central governments.

Many Arab states, especially from the Gulf, were then trying to establish their independent line to Indian Muslims and Indira Gandhi was extremely sensitive to such perfidious behaviour by countries she was making special efforts to reach out to.

Jalloud, who defected to Italy two months ago, is a man who revels in drama. According to Anthony Sampson’s authoritative book on the world’s seven largest oil companies, The Seven Sisters, Jalloud negotiated oil rights in Libya with these companies with a loaded pistol on the negotiating table in front of him.

Dealing with India, however, proved to be harder than negotiating with the Seven Sisters. Soon after Jalloud’s disastrous dance at the Charminar, relations between New Delhi and Tripoli went into deep freeze.

But Gaddafi knew how to make Indira Gandhi thaw.

He quietly sent his second wife and mother of seven of the eight Gaddafi children, Safia Farkash el-Brasai, to New Delhi to apologise to Indira Gandhi for Jalloud’s behaviour and to invite the Prime Minister to Tripoli.

Indira Gandhi not only thawed, she visited Libya within a year, the only Indian Prime Minister to have set foot in Tripoli.

Safia, incidentally, sought refuge along with some of her children in Algeria at the end of August as her husband’s regime was crumbling.

Her flight to Algiers too has an Indian angle.

Their arrival in Algiers was confirmed to the world when Mourad Benmehidi, Algeria’s permanent representative to the UN, wrote a letter to Hardeep Singh Puri, his Indian counterpart, on August 29, the day of their border crossing. Puri was then president of the UN Security Council and he circulated Algeria’s letter to Council members, the high-profile asylum officially signalling that the end of Gaddafi was at hand.

Unlike Indira Gandhi’s other laudable initiatives in the Gulf and the rest of West Asia, neither India nor Libya benefited much from the only prime ministerial visit to Tripoli. A few thousand Indian doctors and nurses found jobs in Libya as the result of a bilateral agreement for co-operation in the field of health in the run-up to the visit.

Other agreements have remained largely symbolic, such as a cultural co-operation agreement, a pact on the avoidance of double taxation and another on bilateral investment protection.

Till his overthrow from power a few months ago in a rebellion nourished by Nato and openly aided by the UN, Gaddafi, however, dreamt of a breakthrough with India, a country he admired for its fight against colonialism and hegemony which constituted the core of his political philosophy.

Yet, his dream remained a fantasy partly because Gaddafi was erratic and partly because he lived in a world that was far removed from reality even in policy and strategic terms.

As a leader who always rushed in where angels proverbially feared to tread, Gaddafi’s overtures to India were often on the wrong foot.

In 1999, when fighting in Kargil was at its height, Gaddafi typically got the hare-brained idea that he was going to solve the Kashmir problem, which, he concluded, had triggered the conflict in Kargil. So, true to his erratic ways, he summoned the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors in Tripoli one midnight to his presence.

Gaddafi then peremptorily unveiled his solution to the two envoys, according to a cable sent by the Indian ambassador to South Block detailing the meeting.

The Libyan strongman wanted both India and Pakistan to give up their claims on Kashmir and create one contiguous political entity made up of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to be left entirely to be governed by the people who lived there without any interference from the outside. The Indian ambassador in question later became New Delhi’s consul-general in Chicago.

On September 12, 2003, when the UN Security Council adopted its resolution 1506 and lifted long years of sanctions against Libya for its role in bombing a passenger aircraft over Scotland, India was unstinting in its support for Tripoli.

As a result, New Delhi got a head start in Libya. Well before any of the major powers that had worked hard for lifting the sanctions in the Security Council had drawn up any concrete plans to regain a foothold in Libya, arrangements were made for a visit to Libya by Jaswant Singh when he was external affairs minister.

But Singh called off his visit at the last minute, partly because of memories of the Kargil-related midnight episode in 1999 and partly because relations with the US — which was then deeply opposed to Gaddafi — were then at the top of South Block’s external affairs agenda.

India weighed the opportunity cost of relations with Libya and decided that the initiative would not be worth it on a foreign policy balance sheet.

But today, even as the first reports about the fall of Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte came in, New Delhi was proactive in its desire to reaffirm and protect its stakes in Tripoli. Libya took up a considerable part of external affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s 90-minute meeting with French foreign minister Alain Juppé.

Significantly, one paragraph in today’s joint statement on “India-France: Partnership for the Future” was devoted solely to Libya and spoke about efforts “to rebuild their country after the sufferings they have endured”.

Krishna told Juppé that their differences need not prevent India and France from discussing the future of Libya.

France has been among Nato’s most active members in changing the Libyan regime and could facilitate India’s re-entry into Libya under a Western-supported post-Gaddafi arrangement.

India was swift in commenting on Gaddafi’s death and, in fact, issued a statement in New Delhi even before the Obama administration had had time to react. “India’s relations with the people of Libya are deep and long-standing,” it said.

“At this juncture, India reiterates its readiness to extend all possible assistance to the people of Libya in their political transition and rebuilding of the country.”

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