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A fresh breeze in Cairo

Why is the Indian political class so wary of embracing a new Egypt?

Written by C. Raja Mohan
February 1, 2011 4:31:23 am

That actor Amitabh Bachchan,immensely popular in Egypt,is the only Indian public figure to express concern about the current tumult in Cairo suggests Bollywood’s sense of internationalism runs a little deeper than that of Delhi’s political elite.

The reasons of realpolitik that define South Block’s cautious silence on the unfolding Arab revolt are easily understandable. Governments have to be prudent in dealing with unpredictable revolutionary situations in other countries. But where is the Indian political class? No major Indian political party has raised its voice in support of the current Arab struggle to overthrow its authoritarian rulers who have long overstayed their welcome.

The apathy of our political parties to turbulence in a region that is part of our extended neighbourhood and of great strategic importance is paradoxical for two reasons. So many of India’s current national interests are extra-territorial amidst the interdependence generated by our economic globalisation. Further,solidarity with the Arab world is supposed to be one of the high principles of modern India’s worldview.

The ruling Congress party appears to have lost all institutional memory of its once intense connections with Arab modernism and Egyptian liberalism. As Indian and Arab nationalists found each other after World War I,the Congress and Egypt’s Wafd Party became natural partners and laid the foundation for anti-colonial solidarity between the two emerging nations that would morph into a shared commitment to non-alignment in the early decades of the Cold War.

On the Left,the Indian communist parties claim a special commitment to internationalism. Critics have argued that communist internationalism had long been simplified to a few slogans. Under the present communist leadership,it has been further reduced to two words — America and Israel. As leading and influential allies of the UPA government during 2004-08,the CPM and the CPI opposed

India’s relations with Washington and Tel Aviv. Yet,as Egyptians press for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak,a leading ally of the US and Israel in the Middle East,our communist parties have had few words to express solidarity with the courageous mass action in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

On the right,the BJP had few internationalist credentials. But the Arab question had roused the BJP in a very different way. It argued that India’s Middle East policy had become hostage to the Congress’s domestic political agenda — especially its attempt to cultivate the Muslim vote.

Whatever the merits of the BJP’s earlier argument,the current people’s revolt in Egypt and other Arab nations could lay a new basis for Indo-Arab cooperation defined less by religion or ideology and more by shared interests and common challenges that confront the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

The men and women marching in Arab streets are not animated either by Islamist ideology or anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist rhetoric. Their focus is on basic bread-and-butter issues. They want responsive governments that treat citizens with a modicum of political dignity and offer a measure of accountability. Whether or not it ousts the dictator and engineers a successful regime change,the popular rebellion in Egypt has shattered many pervasive myths about Arab political culture. That Arabs are passive and immune to the democratic virus has much currency in India and the world. Equally entrenched has been the idea that the only political choice in the Arab world is between secular dictators and Islamic extremists.

While the Indian state has a natural interest in the stability of Egypt and the Arab world as anyone else,our political classes have no reason to accept the false choice in the region that is being drummed up again in Washington and European capitals.

The challenges of an Arab political transition are indeed daunting. But there should be no doubt that the normalisation of Arab politics — where all major forces compete within a pluralist framework — would produce more stability and progress in the long term than current dictatorships.

The Arab political elites were as inspired by the ideas of modernisation and reform as other national movements in the non-Western world at the dawn of the 20th century. Their quest,however,was derailed by great-power intervention,persistent regional conflict,and the emergence of national security states.

The protesters in Cairo,Tunis and Sana’a are in some sense reclaiming for the Arabs the lost liberal political tradition. The Egyptians,in particular,have shown extraordinary courage in defying one of the most brutal police states in the world.

The Egyptian protests,which are entering the second week,mark a definitive end to decades of Arab political stagnation. Not all the hopes of the current revolt might be realised in the short run. The uneven but inevitable return of the Middle East to normal politics,however,offers India a historic opportunity to redefine its solidarity with the Arab people.

In the recent decades,that solidarity had been reduced to an empty slogan; it was about mouthing platitudes with the unrepresentative leaders of the Arab world. As the Arab universe opens up,India has an opportunity to construct a new and comprehensive economic,social and political engagement with it. India will have much to offer and a lot to gain by reaching out to the new elites that are about to reorganise the Middle East.

If India must reinvent its solidarity with the Arab peoples,Cairo will surely re-emerge as Delhi’s main regional partner. As the heir to an ancient civilisation,the most populous Arab nation and the political and cultural hub of the Middle East,Egypt will soon end its tragic marginalisation under Mubarak and reclaim a leadership role. Irrespective of what the government of India does,political India must warmly embrace the new Egypt.

raja.mohan@expressindia.com

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