The safe return of 46 Indian nurses from Iraq is the result of astute diplomacy and a calibrated exercise of soft power by multiple agencies of government. While External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj engaged her counterparts at the political level in West Asia, including Foreign Ministers of the six oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council, sound tactical leadership seemed to have been provided by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Moments of diplomatic imagination during the crisis were discernible when, for instance, South Block decided to widen the scope of the diplomatic engagement. Thus, the outreach to Jordan, Turkey and Syria — countries with rich experience in extricating hostages from jihadi captivity — would have provided valuable insights into the rapidly mutating structure and operational mechanics of jihadi groups, which are enlarging their footprint across regions where Indian blue- and white-collar workers live and work. An unfinished power struggle between ex-Baathists loyal to former President Saddam Hussein who seem to have forged a tactical alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), provided sufficient headroom for diplomatic manoeuvring. Apparently, Indian officials on the ground managed to activate their decades-old links with former Baathists, who played a significant role in ensuring the return of the health-sector workers.

The episode demonstrates the enormous value of making long-term investments in soft power, which has included since the Nehruvian era invitations to promising students and personnel from the Global South to Indian universities and professional institutions. Consequently, people-to-people diplomacy has provided nodes of influence, which have yielded dramatic results during moments of crisis. India has demonstrated during the 2004 Asian tsunami and subsequently during mass evacuations from Beirut in the aftermath of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah, its capacity to deploy warships and aircraft to evacuate Indians in distress, as well as people of other South Asian nationalities. But crisis-forecasting and tighter standard operating procedures may now need to be evolved, including pre-positioning and deployment abroad of civil and military assets for mass evacuations whenever warranted, especially in the Persian Gulf countries where millions of Indians reside. The irreversible trend of globalisation is bound to push more and more Indians abroad, where they could come in harm’s way. However, the risks can be minimised with improvement of domestic working conditions, which would then discourage people from migrating out of economic compulsions to dangerous conflict zones, far away from Indian shores.

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