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A meeting with Gaddafi

It must be fun to have an instantly recognisable surname, a genealogical global brand as it were. Mention Gaddafi, for instance, and images of luxurious Bedouin tents and sexy female bodyguards spring to mind (for some, that is — it’s a downed Panama jet and 270 dead bodies for others), writes Dipankar De Sarkar.

world Updated: Jun 01, 2010 02:11 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

It must be fun to have an instantly recognisable surname, a genealogical global brand as it were. Mention Gaddafi, for instance, and images of luxurious Bedouin tents and sexy female bodyguards spring to mind (for some, that is — it’s a downed Panama jet and 270 dead bodies for others).

So when I received an unexpected invitation from a respected British academic the other day to interview a certain Gaddafi I was incredulous at first. What? Ol’ Muammar? He of designer sunglasses and togas? The man who was hated in the Cold War years and has been wooed since it ended?

Alas, my host was talking about Muammar al-Gaddafi’s second eldest son Saif al-Islam — the man tipped to become the leader of oil-rich Libya.

But Saif, I discovered, is a potentially interesting man — perhaps not colourful like Muammar but brimming with ideas about how to bring democracy to a country ruled for 41 years by his dictator dad.

And so it was that I found myself led into one of the rooms in London’s Chatham House — a famous foreign policy thinktank that has changed since the Cold War years and now researches not only armies and nuclear threats, but also energy, climate change, economics and other such complex matters. A bit like Muammar then, I thought.

Unlike his father who had a mop of hippyish curls, Gaddafi Jr is a shaved-headed bespectacled man who looks like an IT engineer. But that’s entirely in keeping with the times. So were his thoughts: “I want my father to go to India — I want him to represent my country to India,” he told me.

Had the old man never been to India then? Apparently not — a missing bit of a strange Cold War puzzle, it turned out.

Saif couldn’t say why his father had never been.

A senior Indian diplomat, who is quite keen to remain anonymous, was interested to hear of Saif’s overtures. “During the Nonaligned summit in 1983 (where Castro gave Indira Gandhi a bear hug), there was much expectation that Muammar would turn up. But he disappointed us by sending one of his senior officials instead,” the diplomat said.

What about Muammar’s erratic views on Kashmir? Saif said his father wanted to see the Indian subcontinent become a “confederation” — like the European Union. As if, I thought, but politely pointed out the Europeans are all democracies, have roughly comparable levels of economic development and no one is dispatching terrorists over to the other side.

Saif considered this challenge for a moment and then changed his mind: “Well, not today or tomorrow, but perhaps when all countries of that region reach India’s (political and economic) level then they could join each other.”