Morocco, Algeria, Western Sahara would not be of the highest saliency in South Block had Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi not indulged in some high wire diplomacy involving all three.
The issue has popped up again because the Royal Palace in Rabat and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have locked horns over Western Sahara, where a movement for self determination has for decades been led by a Left inclined group called Polisario. The Secretary General is now endorsing a “referendum” for Western Sahara, something that Morocco was able to thwart with US support for over 40 years. That the US aversion for “self determination” in the disputed territory is weakening should be a matter of some interest in New Delhi.
Spanish dictator General Franco’s death in 1975 caused two claimants, Morocco and the Polisario Liberation movement, to make a bid for what had thus far been Spanish Sahara.
After Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Euro communism in Italy and France, the Cold War was going badly for the US. So, Washington dug its heels in support of Rabat’s claims. Algeria, a staunch ally of Moscow, allowed the Polisario to set up its headquarters in Tindouf, southern Algeria.
When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, his Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari promptly escorted him to Moscow in May 1985 to meet new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. To restore balance, Rajiv Gandhi was off to Washington, within a fortnight of the Moscow visit, to remain in President Ronald Reagan’s favour.
On the way he stopped over at Algiers to meet President Chadli Bendjedid, who enlisted the young prime minister’s support for the Liberation movement he so aggressively backed.
Polisario delegations were promptly invited into his chambers in Algiers. Decision to recognize the Saharwi Arab Republic was more or less taken but an announcement would be made only after the delegates returned home.
That no Indian had ever set eyes on the “Republic” New Delhi had so abruptly set its heart on gave this reporter an opportunity to fill in the gap. Tindouf was a sprawling city in tents, neatly arranged along streets and boulevards in the midst of handsome sand dunes. Military, police, civil administration and health services had all been trained and supervised by Cubans.
Little wonder Washington would not budge from its stout support for Rabat. UN Special Representatives for Western Sahara were such favourites of the Washington establishment as Sahibzada Yaqoub Khan, the former Pakistan Foreign Minister.
Chastened by an audience with Reagan, when the delegation returned home, an anxious Bhandari called the ambassador in Algiers, K.V. Rajan, and asked him to hold his horses on the Polisario recognition issue. There had been a change of heart.
The ambassador threw up his hands. Bendjedid had already kissed him on both his cheeks with fulsome Arab affection for his effective diplomacy. Meanwhile, the Polisario had lost no time in renting suitable property for an embassy.
To recognize and de-recognize an entity in a matter of weeks or months would have been awkward. But His Majesty Mohammad V was hopping mad in Rabat. Former foreign secretary M.K. Rasgotra, who knew the King, was dispatched as special envoy to mollify the Rabat palace. A mollified King would also placate the Reagan White House where ambassador K. Shankar Bajpai had exceptional access.
By way of a brief digression, the Reagan-Bajpai combination was to cause an even more dramatic policy reversal after Rajiv Gandhi, in some haste, asked Foreign Minister Bali Ram Bhagat to lead a delegation of foreign ministers from four non-aligned nations, who were holding a session in New Delhi, to Tripoli to commiserate with Muammar Qadaffi, whose baby daughter had been killed in the US bombardment of Tripoli and Benghazi in April, 1986. It all seemed in order. But by the time Bhagat returned, the Prime Minister had been persuaded by Bajpai’s cohorts to correct his course. Bali Ram Bhagat was summarily sacked.
Let me, after this digression, revert to the saga of Western Sahara. What was to be done with the Polisari embassy? The ministry of external affairs had little time for it. Since its budgets were meagre, even the professional embassy free-loaders steered clear. Embassies in the Soviet camp remained steadfastly supportive. But once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990-91, the Polisario embassy was orphaned. It was left to Jaswant Singh, the external affairs minister in the BJP-led government, to wind up their shop in 2000.
New Delhi generally gets goosebumps at terms like “self determination”, but so long as the US was determinedly opposed to the Polisario, there were no apparent risks.
In recent years, the US has reset its global compasses. In his latest interview with the Atlantic magazine, President Barack Obama has talked of American inability to be everywhere. This is the background to Ban Ki-moon’s change of stance on the disputed territory.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)