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Why Lebanon’s Hariri crisis is bad news for India

When Saad Hariri’s unusual resignation through a telecast from foreign soil was unthinkable, India’s stake recently rose further with a Chennai company, OEG, taking over the operations and maintenance of two power plants. Some 50 engineers from Chennai now run the risk of having to provide electricity to the picturesque port town of Jounieh nearby as an essential service.

opinion Updated: Nov 23, 2017 18:40 IST
Lebanon,Saad Hariri,Bashar al-Assad
Posters depicting Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, are seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10(Reuters)

Kul na Saad, reads posters in Arabic which are all over Beirut in an uncharacteristic display of national unity against what Lebanese believe was a soft hostage-taking of their elected Prime Minister Saad Hariri by Saudi Arabia three weeks ago. Translated, Kul na Saad means: “We are all Saad”.

Hariri’s decision on Wednesday not to press his resignation at the request of President Michel Aoun only postpones and does not solve Lebanon’s gravest crisis since the 2006 war with Israel — a crisis in which India has a huge stake but has largely failed to capture popular imagination.

India’s interest in Lebanon’s stability can be counted by the lives of its own soldiers: There are 899 Indian military personnel — all of them from the Assam Regiment — deployed by the United Nations in what has almost become a permanent Indian presence in the eastern-most sector of Lebanon’s southern border with Israel at the tri-junction with Syria. They could be in the direct line of fire if the ever-fragile consensus government in Beirut collapses and the small country at the crossroads of Sunni-Shia-Christian-Jewish rivalry falls prey to another conflict.

While western countries take the easy option and pull out of Lebanon lock, stock and barrel during its fratricidal conflicts and cross-border wars, India has a tradition of not abandoning the Lebanese people. During the 15-year civil war which began in 1975, nearly every non-Arab country closed its embassy in Beirut. Successive Indian governments decided to keep the mission open: Its diplomats remained at their posts except for 72 days, which saw unspeakable cruelty. Briefly, New Delhi went along with the mistaken western conclusion that no one is safe and that the Lebanese State would cease to exist. Except for those 10 weeks, which were an aberration, India has believed that Lebanon always rises like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of each conflict.

Battalions of other nations such as Italy and France, which have more soldiers than India in the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), move around in armoured personnel carriers but Indian members of UNIFIL walk around freely. Veterinary doctors who are part of the Indian contingent care for sick cows, goats and other animals in local communities and have endeared themselves to village populations. Because they are so popular in Lebanon, it is unlikely that soldiers of the Assam Regiment would wish to pull out if the current political crisis descends into another cycle of violence.

When Hariri’s unusual resignation through a telecast from foreign soil was unthinkable, India’s stake recently rose further with a Chennai company, OEG, taking over the operations and maintenance of two power plants in Zouk Mikael in central Lebanon. Some 50 engineers from Chennai now run the risk of having to provide electricity to the picturesque port town of Jounieh nearby as an essential service. It is cold comfort to them as they remain glued to television sets in their homes off the Mediterranean coast for clues about Lebanon’s immediate way forward that 18 years ago Unesco declared Zouk Mikael a ‘City of Peace’.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a foreign policy priority has been to break new ground and explore untapped opportunities by engaging countries with which relations have been stable, yet stagnant. Lebanon neatly fits that bill. At the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) ‘Hall of Fame’, which records landmarks in the history of this iconic academic institution, the only world leader of whom there are three pictures of visits to the AUB is former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru visited the university in May 1960. Since then bilateral visits have been few and far between.

In recent years, the assumption in New Delhi was that Lebanon had stabilised after a long period of conflict. That was the rationale behind minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar’s visit to Beirut in August last year. With Bashar al-Assad set to reclaim all of Syria with Russian help, Iraq having put the worst of the post-US invasion chaos behind it and Lebanon at peace, a Levantine diplomatic initiative seemed timely and potentially rewarding. Akbar visited all three countries.

The current uncertainty in Lebanon casts a shadow over what could have been India’s engagement with what is undoubtedly the most dynamic and enterprising of all the Arab countries.

KP Nayar has been covering West Asia for four decades

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 23, 2017 18:40 IST