India's realistic stand on Libya crisis

Bidanda Chengappa | Updated on March 27, 2011

India is of the view that the air strikes would prove counterproductive to the US’ purported humanitarian objective.

New Delhi's stand that air attacks on Libya must cease is grounded in rational choice and guided by self-interest.

Along with Russia and China, India has been critical of the ongoing western air strikes launched against Libya on the ground that ordinary Libyans would be affected and the air attacks would prove counterproductive to the US' purported humanitarian objective. The External Affairs Minister, Mr S. M. Krishna, has urged the western nations, which have imposed a ‘no fly zone' over Libya, to ceasefire and called upon the Gaddafi regime and the rebel forces to abjure violence and talk to each other.

Role of force

While such a position is moralistic, is it realistic? Given that hostility has hardened over a month between rebel forces and loyalist troops, the question of dialogue does not really arise. Especially in a situation where the loyalist troops were on the verge of victory, given their superior firepower owing to possession of airpower, tanks and artillery, it is a question of the stronger side enjoying a favourable outcome. In such a context, the role of force in international affairs takes precedence over negotiations between the warring factions.

From an Indian national security and foreign policy perspective, the regime in Tripoli needs to be a friendly one since Libya is an oil rich country and an eternal shock — western air attacks or civil war — could affect Indian industrial investments and energy security interests there. New Delhi's stand that air attacks on Libya must cease is, therefore, grounded in rational choice and Waltzian realism: Every big or aspiring power weighs the costs and benefits of the use of force and that their position on particular matters in world politics is guided by self-interest. In India's case, it was protection of its vital interest — Libyan oil.

Economic interests

India's national interests in Libya are essentially economic in nature. Considering an estimated 18,000 Indians who work in that country, it is a considerable contribution to the remittance economy and adds to our foreign exchange kitty. Otherwise, Indian companies, especially in the hydrocarbon, power, construction and IT sector, have several ongoing projects in Libya. Besides, Indian oil majors — Indian Oil, Oil India and ONGC Videsh — are increasingly involving themselves with the Libyan hydrocarbon sector — both in upstream and downstream. Also, BHEL has successfully completed execution of the prestigious Western Mountain Gas Turbine Power Project. Similarly, i-flex Solutions is implementing a project on core banking solutions with the Central Bank of Libya and five other banks. Also, over the past three decades, Indian companies have executed several projects there. These included building hospitals, houses, schools, roads, power plants, airports, dams, transmission lines etc.

The presence of Indian companies in Libya has risen significantly in the last five years. This includes major PSUs such as BHEL, OVL, IOC, Oil India, and private companies such as Punj Llyod, Unitech Ltd, KEC, Dastur Engineering, Shapoorji Pallonji International, SECON Pvt Ltd, Global Steel Ltd (Ispat Group Co.), NIIT, Sun Pharma, Simplex Projects and Simplex Infrastructure Ltd. The bilateral trade figures for 2009-10 were at $844.62 million, showing a significant upward trend since 2004-05, peaking to $ 1,366.65 million in 2007-08 compared to $29.12 million in 2003-04.

In a sense, the logic of UN-mandated military intervention for humanitarian objectives is similar to the justification for India's involvement in the 1971 war with Pakistan over creation of Bangladesh. The Indian Air Force undertook aerial bombardment of Pakistani military targets, but there was no talk of collateral damage at that time. The only difference between the US-led military adventure against Libya and the Indian role in Bangladesh is that India's national interests are not directly affected in Libya like it was in 1971 against Pakistan. India's involvement in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war was — in terms of the theory of realism — guided by security interests, the dismemberment of Pakistan.

Military intervention

Today, the western limited liability intervention in Libya minus boots-on-the-ground aims to provide the rebels a level-playing field against the more organised military muscle of Gaddafi's forces. Perhaps, some level of western covert para-military support like special forces/commandos may be operationally deployed to advice the rebels on tactics to adopt against the regime's forces. Otherwise, the only advantage that the regime's forces have would be in terms of some superior weaponry such as shoulder fired rocket propelled grenades/missile launchers. Apart from this infantry-support weaponry, the qualitative difference would be in terms of command and control of the regime's forces that in a sense would amount to a force multiplier vis-a-vis the motley groups of rebels who lack such a coordinated approach to combat.

The ostensible logic of the US-led western powers to embark on this two-dimensional military adventure from the air and sea was only to prevent a carnage of the rebel forces through neutralisation of Gaddaffi's airpower, tanks and artillery by aerial and naval bombardment. The opposition to western air strikes is solely on the grounds that collateral damage would ensue and innocent citizenry would be hurt due to flaws in military target acquisition procedures based on inaccurate intelligence inputs.

India abstained from voting in the UNSC and did not go along with the NATO-EU and Arab League countries. Clearly, the US anti-dictator policy over Libya is a contradiction — considering Washington adopted a pro-dictator stance on Bahrain — and supported the Saudi Arabian force deployment to quell the opposition to the entrenched monarchy there. Similarly, India also was equally inconsistent by voting with the western industrial democracies against Iran in 2009 at the UN, but not doing so now. But foreign policy and consistency are not always synonymous with each other; instead, foreign policy and national interests have to be in tune with each other.

(The author is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. > blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

Published on March 25, 2011

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