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 continued…