By Swapan Dasgupta
It is reassuring that while the cricket World Cup is being played in the subcontinent, the organisers have wisely chosen to skirt Pakistan. Security may be the apparent reason but the ICC could just as well have fallen back on aesthetics: the very idea of playing at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore would seem to be in questionable taste.
Such abhorrence for a dictator who has ruled oil-rich Libya since 1969 would have been unimaginable even two months ago. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi may have been regarded as slightly odd, even a potentially dangerous madcap with intellectual pretensions, in the smug world of international politics—only the irrepressible Oriana Fallaci was audacious enough to describe him as "clinically stupid", a view that is now conventional wisdom after his bizarre TV address last week. But this did not stop sundry ex-Prime Ministers, Nobel Prize winners, heads of reputable academic institutions and sundry Left-wing 'revolutionaries' from descending on Tripoli to confer respectability on the Green Book and the so-called Third Universal Theory.
Like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez—the man most likely to offer 'Brother Leader' sanctuary in case he opts for a one-way ticket out of Tripoli—Gaddafi sought to buy his way into the league table of erudition and greatness. His Zurich-registered Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation lavishly patronised apparently good causes. The London School of Economics, where his son Saif-al-Islam was taught democracy and good governance, was a big beneficiary of his largesse. As a thank-you gesture, it hosted Gaddafi at Houghton Street and invited Saif to deliver the Ralph Miliband lecture for 2010.
Great centres of learning, it is said, are amoral about the colour of donations—there is no stigma attached to the munificence of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Unfortunately, the pursuit of scholarship was only a small part of Gaddafi's foreign policy megalomania. When it suited him, he was equally generous in his funding of terrorism and armed struggle. Libya's role in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque and the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie has been established. Less well-known are its sponsorship of the massacre of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics and its arms supplies to the Irish Republican Army. The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahriya also gave asylum to two army officers responsible for the cold-blooded murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.
The hospitality Gaddafi showered on Mujib's killers stemmed partly from his distaste for a country created by "Soviet imperialist designs" and partly from his partiality to Islamic populism. Gaddafi hero-worshipped President Nasser of Egypt but, unlike Nasser, he was no secularist—he even enthused over an Islamic Europe in the near future. This may account for his wariness of India. He was openly supportive of Pakistan in the Bangladesh war of 1971 and abused Indira Gandhi in a language unacceptable in international diplomacy; and in his only appearance at the UN General Assembly in 2009, he called for the creation of an independent state in Jammu and Kashmir. Gaddafi also opposed India's claim for a permanent seat in the Security Council and provided covert assistance to Pakistan's nuclear programme. His support for Pakistan was, however, tempered by his deep anger over the execution of his 'friend' Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, an anger that has persisted.
Gaddafi's eccentric ways are well known. What is, however, perplexing is the willingness of the Indian foreign policy establishment to walk the extra mile to court him. In 1984, for example, Indira Gandhi was persuaded to go to Libya on a state visit. The visit proved a disaster after the Libyan authorities insisted that the Prime Minister cover her forearms.
Part of this desperation to oblige may have been dictated by energy security. But there was a political subtext to the prevailing fascination for Arab and African dictators. Since Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed his unwavering commitment to all "anti-colonial" struggles, India was inclined to overlook post-colonial tyranny for the sake of being on the right side of history. Delhi even turned a blind eye to the harassment and expulsion of Indians in Burma, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. Every disreputable Third World tyrant was routinely invited as chief guest on Republic Day and honoured with state-sponsored 'peace' prizes. If Gaddafi and, for that matter, Robert Mugabe haven't been specially hosted, it is not on account of their unsuitability.
The West kowtowed to dictators for either strategic or economic reasons. India flattered them even when it hurt its self-interests. The details of Saddam Hussein's Oil-for-Food payoffs have provided some rationale to apparent acts of irrationality. If the files from Gaddafi's foreign ministry ever come into public view—as it should—India will be a little more knowledgeable about why a vibrant democracy hasn't been more discerning in its foreign policy.
Sunday Times of India, February 27, 2011