February 18, 2017: What if an emergency situation comes up in Saudi Arabia that puts 3 million strong Indian diaspora in risk; How long would the Indian government take in the transportation of everyone from Riyadh to Mumbai? According to a Takshasila Institution Report, the time needed could be between 15 to 50 days depending on the availability of air and marine assets.
While many diaspora evacuations have been successfully executed by India, including the airlift of more than one lakh non-resident Indians from Kuwait in 1990 which is considered to be the largest civilian evacuation incident in history, India still isn’t completely equipped with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) in case of such emergency events.
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According to Guru Aiyar, Research Fellow at Takshashila and author of the report. “It’s not that India does not have a strategic culture. Practically, we have done good vis-à-vis major developed countries like the U.S or U.K that have comparable force levels. Having said that, MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] or the armed forces do not have SOPs, and evacuations have been conducted more as crisis management than a planned activity.”
During the 1986 Yemen civil war, it took days before India could convince a merchant ship to pick up the 850 Indians. By that time, the British, French and Russian nationals had already been evacuated in a joint operation conducted by their countries.
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The question has been raised time and again; Why, even with extensive experience in such cases like India, does it lack a formalized procedure? Part of the answer can be found in India’s past foreign policy. Nitin Pai, director at Takshashila, recently wrote about the fact that it was preferred by earlier governments that non-resident Indians assimilate with their adopted countries. Steps taken by the country to help NRIs keep up their emotional or communal connections to home were considered to be nothing but counter-productive.
Short-term institutional memory of the government may be another reason in this issue. Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India who has recently written about the need to institutionalize diaspora evacuations, strongly believes that governments have a tendency to forget experiences of such crisis situations once they are over.
“Some officials emphasize that each crisis is unique and therefore, a general evacuation plan is not necessary,” he mentioned, ” Others have expressed their concern that any emergency plan and scenario based exercises could be leaked to the public.”
he also added that such risks are minimal. He pointed out that there are many benefits of institutionalizing benefits in terms of financial costs, speed of action, preparedness, training. “Simple standard operating procedures can facilitate evacuation processes tremendously.”
According to statistics, As of 2015, nearly 16 million Indians or persons of India origin lived overseas, making it the largest such cohort around the world. Among these, half of them lived in the Western Asia countries, such as Qatar, UAE, Yemen where the diaspora population increased by 150% in the past decade. Out of the thirty odd evacuations carried out by India since 1947, ten were executed in such countries like Kuwait, UAE, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
“The Gulf region is of particular importance, as testified by Saudi Arabia’s recent changes in immigration law which left dozens of thousands of Indians undocumented and in dire life conditions,” Xavier stated. The risk factor for Indian expatriates are also because of rising political populism around the world and the escalating reach of Islamic terrorist organizations, Xavier feels.
The time has come for India to work on the improvement of its preparedness for another such crisis. “Unlike a few years ago, there is now a significant openness to learn from the past, institutionalize best practices and develop new procedures to conduct evacuation operations more efficiently and in general, ensure the diaspora’s safety,” Xavier concluded.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.
Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.
In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion.
In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.
He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.
After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.
His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach.
Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.
When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.
Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.
The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.
Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.
He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.
His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.
Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.
The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in
the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party.
In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.
Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India.
Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.
It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.
He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.
Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.
His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”
In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.
While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.
A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognize. (IANS)