By Sushil Kutty
The Modi establishment, which takes pride in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “muscular foreign policy”, recently took Canada to task and bent Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Modi’s will. Prime Minister Narendra Modi now has the challenging task of bringing home eight retired Indian Navy officers sentenced to death in Qatar, the tiny Gulf country with more LNG in its belly than mercy in its ruler’s big heart.
And Prime Minister Modi has to appeal to this big heart, pleading for mercy for the eight Indian veterans on death row in Doha, where not long ago Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup. Qatar is a stinking rich principality where the death sentence is commoner than thievery and summary retribution is the password for justice. A total of seven and a half lakh Indian expats live and work in Qatar, three and a half lakh of them Malayalees of Kerala.
Qatar’s other lesser known facts are what make expats jumpy. For example, Qatar houses the largest US military base in the Middle-East, but it also hosts the Hamas leadership. Two, it has strong ties with Iran, but it also loaned the Al-Ubaid base to the United States to launch the drone that killed “terrorist Soleimani” of Iran, one of President Trump’s big-brags to this day. Three, Qatar condemns Israel for occupying Palestine, but at the same time moves funds to Gaza and Hamas via Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Four, while having little sympathy for the rightwing of India, including the Sangh Parivar, Qatar has invested in “Adani-Green ” and “Ambani-Reliance ”. Also, Qatar exports huge volumes of natural gas to India and it buys massive amounts of food-grains from India. The Qatar-India trade balance massively favours the tiny desert kingdom. India can punch a big hole in the Qatari economy if she stops trade with Qatar and orders Indian expats to return.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India has been rather lame in pushing India’s interests vis a vis Qatar. The couple of times when Qatar would have expected a strong Indian response, the Modi government was so abjectly tame, it stank of LNG. Those who have inhaled gas will know. The manner in which Qatar made India yield on the Nupur Sharma issue isn’t worth repeating, except to note that Prime Minister Narendra Modi got familiarized with the term “fringe”.
But with the death sentence to the eight Indian Navy veterans, Qatar has “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” by the scruff of her neck. It is Modi’s Pulwama moment all over again. But Modi cannot do a Balakote on this one. One, because Qatar is India’s friend. Two, because Modi’s muscular foreign policy never looked less stringy than it does now. Three, things have gone beyond the “hug stage” for our hug-first Prime Minister.
Four, Modi’s acclaimed Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar went rushing to the Omanese Foreign Minister for a one-on-one with his Qatar counterpart. The Modi government got first info of the eight Indian sailors in dire straits in September 2022.
Then, at that time, Jaishankar stood in Parliament and said India was seized of the plight of the eight, all of them decorated Navy veterans, and everything necessary would be done for their quick release and return. More than a year later, India’s External Affairs Minister has little knowledge of the details of the case. The eight allegedly spied for Israel. They were employees of a private company in Qatar run by an Oman citizen, who too was arrested and charged with spying for Israel, but was let go. The private company that “spied for Israel” no longer exists – only the death row and the eight Indians on death row.
Indian citizens should know that the glitz and glitter of oil and gas hides the inequities of the region. Murders are pardoned for blood money. And treason is the charge for banter and sweet nothings exchanged over the phone. Something like that must have happened with the eight. India now has one Indian Navy “spy” rotting in a Pakistani jail and another eight sailors fighting the death sentence in a Qatari prison.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sorry to say, is no lucky mascot for the families of these nine unfortunate mariners. But they haven’t lost hope even at this last hour. The fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, the sons and daughters of the eight Indian sailors locked up in Qatar, where the death sentence is either hanging by the neck or shot in the back of the head, execution-style.
Karma seems to have caught up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi five years after Pulwama. But Qatar is not Pakistan and neither is Doha Balakote. There is also no Azhar Masood or Hafiz Sayed in Doha. Israel’s Spice bombs are of no use and the Mirage 2000 wouldn’t be flying all the distance to do an Entebbe. The eight decorated sailors have struggled with solitary and silence for most part of their incarceration while the Indian Prime Minister’s international diplomacy was hailed. The Qatar ‘Emir’ was in India in 2015. A year later Modi was in Doha.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s friends, “MBS” of Saudi Arabia and “MBZ” of the UAE, are of no use as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are friendlier with Israel than with “terror-funder Qatar”.
The Modi regime has few options. One, of course, is to follow the legal process of Qatar to its logical end. If everything is lost, beg the Emir for mercy. A parallel diplomatic route will have to run. But diplomacy at this stage will not deliver. Qatar must be persuaded with whatever means. Qatar’s dependency on India must be exploited. If push comes to shove, Qatar should be made aware of the consequences.
India should try to get to the bottom of the secretive case. What proof does Qatar have of the eight spies? Why Israel? Which other countries are involved, if any? Which countries can help, which countries are standing in the way? The Modi government has lost precious time doing nothing and hoping for the best. Forget what happens to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, India would be reduced to a Third World banana republic if Qatar goes ahead and hangs or kills execution-style ‘India’s Eight’. India will be set back by a 100 years.
At this point and time, when India holds the G20 presidency and Prime Minister Modi is being hailed as the ‘Vishwaguru’, the boast ‘Modi Hai Toh Mumkin Hai’ is under severe stress. (IPA Service)