An offer to assist Libya with its post-Qadhafi reconstruction and rehabilitation coupled with India's remaining days as president of the United Nations Security Council and an invitation to attend this week's Friends of Libya conference in Paris enable India to turn the page in its somewhat troubled relations with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-backed rebels poised to form the North African country's new government.
The opportunity arises as India alongside China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa – the five Security Council members that did not support the imposition last March of a no-fly zone in Libya and NATO's bombing campaign — finds itself forced to rethink its approach towards embattled Arab autocratic leaders in the wake of the rebels' takeover of the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
China and Russia scrambled last week to improve their ties with the rebel Transition National Council (TNC) in a bid to salvage commercial ties and opportunities in post-Qadhafi Libya. Libya may be their most immediate concern as the TNC asserts its authority in the country, but India like China, Russia and the others, is certain to debate the implications of Mr. Qadhafi's fall in its policy towards other embattled Arab leaders, first and foremost Syrian president Bashar al Assad.
Alarm bells rang out last week in the Chinese and Russian capitals after Abdeljalil Mayouf, a manager of the rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil Company (AGOCO) warned that China, Russia and Brazil, in contrast to Western nations, could face political obstacles in reverting back to business as usual once Mr. Qadhafi has been removed from power. Mr. Mayouf did not mention India, but there is no doubt that in his view, it falls into the same category as China, Russia and Brazil.
To be sure, Mr. Mayouf represents only one strand of thinking among the rebels, who have agreed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy inviting India along with the other four recalcitrant Security Council members to the Paris conference to discuss support for the TNC.
Foreign assistance is crucial as the TNC faces the daunting task of enforcing law and order; preventing further acts of revenge and retribution; providing basic services such as water, electricity, food and fuel; reviving oil exports and kick-starting the economy while at the same time hunting down Mr. Qadhafi and gaining control of Qadhafi strongholds such as his hometown of Sirte.
The exercise is likely to provide India and others in the international community a template for similar situations that are certain to arise as anti-government protests sweep the Middle East and North Africa, particularly as protesters' resolve in Syria and in Yemen is boosted by events in Libya and opposition groups seek to emulate the Libyan model of forming a united leadership that effectively serves as a government-in-waiting.
Syria is probably next in line with protesters displaying the kind of resilience and perseverance that has rendered Mr. Assad's five-month old brutal crackdown a failure. As western sanctions particularly of Syria's oil sector start to kick in, the question no longer is if but when Mr. Assad will be forced out of office. India alongside China and Russia is likely to want to ensure that it maintains some kind of constructive relationship with the forces likely to succeed the Syrian leader.
Commentators have been quick to note that Asia's commercial interests in Libya are limited and are likely to in good time assert the same with regard to Syria. India's interests in Libya are virtually non-existent while China relied last year on Libya for only three per cent of its crude imports but had to evacuate from Libya 36,000 workers employed by 75 primarily State-owned Chinese companies earlier this year.
Yet, even if commercial ties with Libya and Syria are relatively miniscule, there is a lot more at stake for India and other Asian nations not only in the three countries whose autocratic leaders were toppled this year, i.e. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but across the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond chancing that their companies will be at a disadvantage in competing for lucrative post-revolution contracts, they risk negative perceptions in a region in which millions are closely monitoring events in Libya and Syria and are likely to be reinvigorated by the demise of Mr. Qadhafi.
Mr. Qadhafi's fall was preceded by peaceful mass protests that forced the Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt to resign earlier this year. The grievances that have propelled the rebellion in Libya and the protests in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt are shared with the population of a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf. Change by hook or by crook is likely to be the name of the game for the next decade in the Middle East and North Africa, a region that is strategic because of its geography, energy resources and the financial clout of its oil producers.
No doubt, the struggle for greater political freedom and economic opportunity is likely to be protracted and bloody and the transition towards more open societies messy at best. In a region in which the struggle to get rid of the yoke of dictatorship faces the constant threat of sectarian and tribal strife, India with its mosaic of ethnic and religious groups cohabiting in a democracy and its long-standing ties to parts of the Middle East has much to offer.
That is most immediately true in Libya where the TNC has to quickly move from the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east of the country to Tripoli in a demonstrative gesture of its taking control of the country and a city of two million that is without political leadership or direction. With no running water in Tripoli because supply from aquifers in the desert has been disrupted by the fighting and barely any electricity, the TNC has already promised to immediately start distributing 30,000 tons of gasoline as well as diesel fuel for power stations.
In a country, in which in his 42 years in power Mr. Qadhafi ensured that no institutions developed that could challenge his authority, the TNC and its elected successor will need substantial support in building a more open, transparent society from scratch. Iraq, which was wracked by sectarian violence and fratricide after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, has served as an example of how not to do it. Those lessons are reflected in the TNC's blueprint for the future, which outlines a 20-month timetable for the transition as well as procedures to ensure that the process is transparent.
Like the rebels, Mr. Qadhafi too appears to have drawn inspiration from Iraq's example. He allowed his capital to fall, ensured his escape and vowed to wage an insurgency. Hussein fled to his hometown of Tikrit where he exploited his successor's policies to fuel sectarian strife. Mr. Qadhafi's whereabouts remain a mystery and it is not clear whether he has returned to Sirte. Unlike Hussein, Mr. Qadhafi has no powerful neighbours on whose support he will be able to rely. As a result, Mr. Qadhafi's final stand could prove to be a less bloody and wrenching battle than that of Hussein and his associates.
For India like for China and Russia, the challenge is to develop middle rather than short-term policies that enable it to capitalise on political and economic opportunities amid initial chaos and instability. Transition in Syria is likely to prove as messy as it is in Libya.
It took five months of bloodshed in Syria for India and the other Security Council holdouts to endorse condemnation of Mr. Assad's crackdown and then only in the weakest possible form because of their concern that it could lead to foreign military intervention. Syrians, unlike Libyans, oppose foreign military aid and have so far insisted that they do not want to move from peaceful to armed resistance.
This should make it easier for India, if not for Russia and China, to get on the right side of history. Doing so does not require a political U-turn but would mean a more forceful stand against the brutality of an embattled leader that does not give him an effective license to brutally crackdown on protesters by effectively blocking an international consensus. Libya offers an opportunity for countries like India to demonstrate that their heart is in the right place.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.)