After the impressive diplomatic start with the neighbours last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must reach out to a region as critical to India as the subcontinent — the Middle East. Despite its vital economic importance, cultural and physical proximity, and shared security concerns, the Middle East does not figure high on the list of New Delhi’s diplomatic priorities.
Consider, for example, the fact that former prime minister Manmohan Singh had hardly visited the region. He travelled just once to Iran and Egypt — to attend the summits of the non-aligned movement. Singh’s bilateral visits to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman — once each in the last decade — did not match India’s high stakes in the region.
Modi is in a good position to change this and take a strategic approach to the Middle East. Any reference to the region and the BJP government in the same sentence, however, leads us inevitably to Israel. For a variety of reasons, the BJP in the past tended to attach special importance to Israel. Criticising the Congress governments for their neglect of Israel, the BJP ideologues tended to privilege the relationship with Tel Aviv in the Middle East.
Recall the remarks of Jaswant Singh during a visit to Israel in 2000, the first by an Indian foreign minister, affirming that Delhi’s policy towards the Middle East was a victim of “vote-bank” politics at home. The NDA government hosted the first and only visit to India by an Israeli prime minister in 2003. The return of the Congress to power in 2004 saw the downgrading of the political engagement with Israel, even as security cooperation with Tel Aviv flourished under UPA rule.
There is a widespread perception today that Israel will be at the top of Modi’s diplomatic agenda. Israel is one of the few countries that Modi visited as the chief minister of Gujarat. And if he chooses to visit Israel again, he will become India’s first prime minister to do so.
Meanwhile, the sharp communal polarisation during the election has generated several concerns in the Middle East, not always expressed formally by the governments in the region. One is the apprehension about potential majoritarian policies under a Modi government. Most governments in the Middle East are impressed by the scale and scope of Modi’s victory and would give the new prime minister the benefit of doubt on his attitude towards India’s large Muslim minority. They are prepared to accept, for now at least, the BJP’s promise to treat all Indian citizens equally.
The other was the concern that Modi might pursue confrontational policies with Pakistan, which enjoys considerable weight in the Muslim world. Modi has already dispelled this perception by reaching out to Nawaz Sharif even continued…