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The stage is set for a more vigorous engagement with the region.
Back-to-back visits to Delhi this week by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and the foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, underline Delhi’s growing engagement with the Gulf region, which has become vital for India’s economic, political and security interests. The UPA government has often talked about a “look west” policy. Although Delhi is some distance from organising a coherent look west policy, over the last decade, the UPA government has set the stage for a more vigorous engagement with the Gulf.
Any suggestion of a look west policy compels a comparison with India’s much-celebrated Look East policy and presents us with a paradox. India’s relationship with the Gulf is much denser than with Southeast Asia. Yet the Gulf does not resonate as much as Southeast Asia in India’s foreign policy discourse. India’s annual trade with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for example, is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015. India’s trade with the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — is expected to cross $200 billion by then.
In pursuing an effective look west policy, the next government will have to take into account a number of factors. For one, it must recognise that the GCC is a weaker regional institution than the ASEAN and makes far fewer diplomatic demands on its partner countries. The membership of the GCC does not encompass two key regional states — Iraq and Iran. Amid a deepening regional divide, it is politically more volatile. This means it is up to Delhi to take the initiative on intensifying the engagement with the region.
Second, as the principal source of India’s hydrocarbon imports, the Gulf will remain critical for India’s economic well-being for the foreseeable future. While Delhi has talked the talk on energy security, there is much the next government will have to do in translating it into more secure interdependence. Third, the region is also a source of livelihood for nearly seven million Indian expatriate workers and their families. It is also a major source of currency remittances, estimated at more than $30 billion a year.
Securing the welfare of this large pool of manpower in the Gulf must be central to any look west policy.
Fourth, the next government in Delhi must find ways to attract the large amount of capital available in the Gulf for investment in India. If FDI is going to be critical in strengthening India’s macroeconomic stability, the Gulf remains one of the most underutilised sources. Any improvement in India’s investment climate would automatically boost the engagement with continued…