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.
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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 the Gulf.
Fifth, India must learn to overcome its Pakistan obsession while engaging with the region. Most countries in the Gulf will continue to shower affection on Pakistan. This in no way limits the region’s interest in a strong partnership with India. The growing gap in the national weights of India and Pakistan has already encouraged the region to pursue separate policies towards the two countries. In building deep linkages with the region over the coming years, Delhi could look towards a potential moderating influence of the Gulf on Pakistan.
Sixth, the next government in Delhi will have to consolidate strategic partnerships with key countries of the region. The last decade has seen the first steps towards greater cooperation on law enforcement, intelligence sharing and counter terrorism, which offer huge potential to deepen security cooperation between India and the Gulf. Seventh, there is a growing desire in the region for defence cooperation with India. Few in the GCC expect India to replace the traditional sources of external military support for the region. Yet, amid significant shifts in the global and regional balance of power, the Gulf wants to diversify its military partnerships to include emerging powers like India. Delhi has had a long-standing defence partnership with Oman and a more recent one with Qatar. In the talks with King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain in Delhi last week, defence cooperation figured prominently. India is expected to sign an agreement on military cooperation with Saudi Arabia this week. The next government in Delhi will have an opportunity to end some of the UPA government’s dithering on defence diplomacy with the Gulf.
Eighth, Delhi needs to demonstrate greater political warmth towards the region. Over the decades, Indian foreign policy has tended to treat the Gulf as some kind of a diplomatic ghetto, of interest only to a few sections of Indian society. Despite the physical proximity and huge stakes in the region, high-level visits by Indian political leaders have been few and far between. The time has come for India to invest significant political, diplomatic and intellectual resources in understanding and engaging with the region. Finally, with India seemingly set for a regime change after the next elections, a government led by the BJP’s Narendra Modi might have some extra work to do in the Gulf, given some of the controversies surrounding him.
Any incoming BJP government could easily reclaim the foreign policy legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who cleared much ground for the construction of special relationships in the Gulf, successfully won the region’s neutrality during the Kargil war with Pakistan, initiated a strategic dialogue with the GCC and explored a political opening with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation that Delhi had long viewed with wariness. Vajpayee had demonstrated that the BJP government was a pragmatic and productive partner to the Gulf nations. If he becomes prime minister, Modi’s reiteration of that message would reassure the Gulf of continuity in India’s foreign policy. A special emphasis on the centrality of the Gulf for India in the BJP’s foreign policy platform would help the party build on the regional gains from the decade-long tenure of the UPA government if it comes to power.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for
‘The Indian Express’