Look Middle East Policy

Modi must reach out to the region, make a pragmatic break with the past.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: June 2, 2014 9:37 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must reach out to a region as critical to India as the subcontinent — the Middle East. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must reach out to a region as critical to India as the subcontinent — the Middle East.

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’
express@expressindia.com

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First Published on: June 2, 2014 12:03 am
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    arvint
    Jun 2, 2014 at 2:39 pm
    Many of the kingdoms or countries in middle east is either undemocratic or dynastic.. I wonder how they r concerned about bjp rule in india???...
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    1. C
      CD Singh
      Jun 2, 2014 at 3:39 am
      Middle East? It is West Asia for India. Get over the western hangover!
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      1. D
        divya gohil
        Jun 3, 2014 at 7:08 am
        ઓરીના રોગ થી બચવા શું કરશો? હાલમાં રાજકોટ મહાનગરપાલિકા વિસ્તારમાં વેકસીન પ્રિવેન્ટેબલ ડીસીઝ (રસીકરણથી અટકાવી... :fb.me/1aykQ2FDT
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          divya gohil
          Jun 3, 2014 at 7:08 am
          ગૂગલ જૂનમાં લોન્ચ કરશે એન્ડ્રોઈડ ટીવી ગૂગલ ટીવીનો પ્રોજેક્ટ ભલે શરૂ જ ન થઈ શક્યો હોય પરંતુ તેમ છતાંય ઈન્ટરનેટ... :fb.me/6mKrMWRTy
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            divya gohil
            Jun 3, 2014 at 7:07 am
            ડિઝલમાં ભાવ વધારાને લઇ તીવ્ર વિરોધની શરૂઆત થઇ અન્‍નાદ્રમુક અને સમાજવાદી પાર્ટીએ ડીઝલની કિંમતમાં કરવામાં આવેલા... :fb.me/1sRhQlAY4
            Reply
            1. D
              divya gohil
              Jun 3, 2014 at 7:08 am
              ફ્રી એપ્લિકેશન જે આપની લાઇફ બનાવી દેશે સરળ ગૂગલ પ્લે પર ઘણી બધી એંડ્રોઇડ એપ્લિકેશન ઉપલબ્ધ છે જેમાંથી કેટલીંક... :fb.me/1lqciRBiR
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              1. D
                divya gohil
                Jun 3, 2014 at 7:07 am
                ભારતીયોએ સ્વિસ બેંકો માંથી 8500 કરોડ કાળા નાણા ઉપાડી લીધા વિદેશોમાં છુપાવેલ કાળુ નાણું પાછું લાવવાની પ્રવૃત્તિ... :fb.me/2UIslMIHM
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                1. D
                  divya gohil
                  Jun 3, 2014 at 7:07 am
                  વડાપ્રધાન મોદી અને RBI ગવર્નર રાજન વચ્ચે મુલાકાત RBIની નાણાકીય પોલિસીની સમીક્ષાને ધ્યાનમાં લઇને આજે RBIના ગવર્નર... :fb.me/6X8fXXawQ
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                    Girish
                    Jun 2, 2014 at 7:17 am
                    too many expectations from the public weren't enough for Modi, now intellectuals add to the already long wishlist.
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                      Jigisa Shah
                      Jun 2, 2014 at 7:12 pm
                      At any cost israel need to put top priority .Jews are dominating this world by influencing economy .
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                        Lalitaditya Muktapida
                        Jun 2, 2014 at 5:51 am
                        Now that it has become apparent that vote bank politics and non-accordance of "minority" status to the significant potion groups in India is no longer viable the external powers who have inimical interests in this nation's well being want to at least have some form of influence by means of foreign policy objectives. What moral authority do the middle east nations have to talk about secularism in India? Take one look at the way non-Muslims in these countries are treated and it is realized that this part of the world is still primitive in its outlook towards life and have never moved on from the middle ages.Why should Modi worry about what these nations think while in the past these so called neutral nations have slept with stan on the OIC resolutions on Kashmir, provided fighter planes to stan during war and also secretly funded the nuclear program of our neighbour? If at all Modi should worry about something it is to bring about true democracy and modern outlook in the middle east and have them shed the anti-Semitism which is ingrained in the DNA of these countries. Eliminating Wahabi Islam is also something Modi should target for.Frankly, the middle East bar our all weather friend Israel is hardly worth any time of Modi's. The Author would do well in realizing this.
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                          jay kay
                          Jun 2, 2014 at 12:14 pm
                          Unbelievable - only a complete would want to have anything to do with Isra, which is a parasite nation. Israel exists only on the generosity of US taxpayers who send 12 billion every year as aid. Isra also steals water from it's neighbours and treats Palestineans worse than the s treated the Jews in WW2; for example Palestinean farmers are forbidden from growing their own crops on their OWN LAND. This is ridiculous. Isra is also a major refuge for Russian gangsters who looted the country during the '90s and murdered so many journalists. The country is nothing but one big money laundering hub, cash goes there from countries Jewish and US gangsters have looted and then is used to buy hard ets like Football Clubs in the UK. Remember all those farmers in India forced to sell their kidneys? The organs went to Isra - it is a major hub of organ trafficking in the world. Don't worry, after a few years of Modi, all of us will be forced to sell our organs to pay back our debts!
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                            Shahenshah
                            Jun 2, 2014 at 9:39 pm
                            Thank you, Captain Obvious. Why is it that so many Indian commentators view the Prime Minister as if he was born yesterday. [Some professor from JNU declared the Prime Minister lacks 'sophistication' to handle foreign policy. If anyone knows where and how this professor acquired his, I should love to know.] Through each test he has proven himself as a pragmatist and long-term thinker. So why should PM Modi become an ideologue here? A better article should have focused on policies, strategies the Prime Minister can employ to advance India's interests. This is just, 'Don't be an ideologue' sort of piece.Also, if Mr Mohan, you are reading this. Please stop discussing issues as if there's some g consensus. Increasing ties with Israel disproportionately is very much debatable. Israel is the only modern, non-mediaeval country in the Middle East. Israel has technology India requires to buttress her defences and found her progress. Middle Eastern nations save Israel do not. Also, most Middle Eastern dictatorships are fragile at best, and only becoming more so. And America's shale LNG is going to start coming to Indian ss soon. Last, even if India desires to develop her relations with Middle Eastern nations, there is only so much that can happen when, for example, Saudi Arabia funds global terrorism. Israel, of course, does not fund organisations whose aim is to undermine and harm to the maximum, since they can't destroy the Indian state. See? You needn't concur. I only hope you see this is a debatable issue. Your tone makes it seem as if people who differ with you are quacks. Is this your M.O.? The pedantic, arrogant slight followed by self-evidential advice? May as well pen, 'How Not to Win Friends and Influence People'.
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                              Anjan
                              Jun 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm
                              A well written article and as stated in the article it is best for India to have good relations with Israel. Israel can help India to train our border security forces and provide the latest technology for national security.
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                                Gyan Rohra
                                Jun 3, 2014 at 4:24 pm
                                Many Indians in all countries of Middle East are doing well and are appreciated due to their work. Good relations with Middle East will promote their cause and reduce animosity shown by Muslim countries to India in World Islamic meets.
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                                  ashel
                                  Jun 2, 2014 at 12:53 pm
                                  Very good analysis and positive article. India needs such analytic & guidance support from all dimensions at this moment.
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                                    Shiva Shiva
                                    Jun 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm
                                    India need to be brutally balanced and be pragmatic in relationship. That is good enough to bring both sides to us. India is the only nation that is dealing balanced, deep and friendly with all nations in the region. We buy from Iran oil, we buy many techology and co develop with Israel and have millions in Gulf and get Oil. What is needed? Good marketing, good PR, and more strategic ties to bring region closer.
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                                    1. M
                                      M.s. Venkatraghavan
                                      Jun 2, 2014 at 1:52 pm
                                      India should not open too many fronts in the first year. Let us engage with stan and Afghanistan for ttade and security issues.Next Bangldesh also for security and trade. Nepal also needs guidance while difficult part is Sri Lanka where India must ensure resettling of hapless people who suffered enough under Army. Thus after this only Iran and Saudi Arabia as this is also a balancing act. Isreal comes next here defence coopetation will be useful for India.
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                                        Verughis
                                        Jun 2, 2014 at 11:12 am
                                        Yes the going will be tough, but a man like modi can get through it. Most of our weapons from the sovit union are sort of useless no matter what the world says. Its true that the soviet ships or subs are made with no consideration for the human safety or ergonomics when compared to western counterparts where human life carries more dignity.Yes a lot of people do work in the middle east countries, but its a question of mutual needs also. They need skilled people to work and when the labout force is streamilined there is nothing they can do aginst us, except threaten to take actions. I feel strong ties with israel is good, as there is lot to learn from then and they are also looking for good allies in the obama time. They have a lot to offer us and also to gain from the relationship.Go Modiji go.
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                                          common
                                          Jun 2, 2014 at 3:20 pm
                                          With plenty of money with great talents, middle east wants investment options at India. India is expected to mean business and give concrete approvals for investment. No bending of laws or total sleep over new proposals. Not necessarily only a particular community gets the benefit of big proposals. India is yet to project its image as a haven for good industries and a sick bed of politics. Congress projected the country as hot bed of politics and Nehru parivar interfered in all policy matters. A weak Prime Minister was also responsible for non action. Engage all on merits. Iran is not the only good nation for India. Any one meaning business is needed. Modi would usher in the required revolution over a period of time.
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                                            SK
                                            Jun 2, 2014 at 3:58 am
                                            In the middle east Shia Iran and Israel should be the focus of our diplomacy. Shia Iran is important for cheap oil supplies and Israel is needed to support our defence needs. We should be deeply engaged in middle east to cut down our oil cost and to cut down the Sunni terrorr financing to stan.
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