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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 before he was sworn in as prime minister. Most countries in the region have no desire to pick sides in the subcontinent, despite Pakistan’s relentless effort over the last many decades to mobilise the Muslim world against India.
That leaves two other concerns in the Middle East — Modi might put relations with Israel above those with the Arab world and worsen Delhi’s political neglect of the Middle East seen during the UPA rule. In the coming weeks and months, Modi can and must dispel the misperceptions about his foreign policy towards the Middle East. A five-fold framework for the pursuit of India’s expansive interests in the region presents itself to Modi.
First, while critics and supporters of the BJP are bound to focus on the Israel question, Modi must reaffirm his commitment to the foreign policy legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister of the NDA government during 1998-2004, which emphasised a balanced approach to the Middle East. Although Vajpayee made a vigorous effort to deepen ties with Israel, he did equally interesting things in the rest of the region. Vajpayee travelled to Iran and hosted the Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, as the chief guest at the 2003 Republic Day celebrations. His chief diplomat, Jaswant Singh, travelled on a highly successful visit to Riyadh and began the transformation of India’s relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The NDA tenure also saw quiet Indian attempts to engage the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with which India had a complex relationship.
Second, Modi must make the relationship with Israel transparent. There is no reason for India to be either clandestine or apologetic (the Congress party’s preferences). Nor is there room for the romanticism that prevails in sections of the Hindutva parivar. If India deals with Israel in an open manner, like all other major powers including Russia and China, there will be less suspicion in the Muslim world of Delhi’s policies in the region.
Third, while India’s relationship with Israel is important, Modi should know, it is no substitute for the pursuit of India’s vital interests in the rest of the region. The Middle East is the main source of India’s growing oil requirements, home to seven million expatriate workers, a leading destination for India’s exports, an important source of capital and a potentially critical partner in combating terrorism.
Fourth, Modi must recognise that the Middle East today has many problems other than the Arab-Israeli disputes — the growing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the mounting sectarian tension between the Shia and the Sunni, and debilitating civil wars in many states of the region. Modi must break decisively from Delhi’s tradition of viewing the Middle East through the prism of India’s domestic politics.
Fifth, while Delhi must be sensitive to the multiple faultlines — old and new — in the Middle East, Modi must signal that India is open to business with all countries in the region. For its part, the Middle East is ready for a more intensive and pragmatic engagement with the Modi sarkar.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’