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India and the Middle East: Finding a New Balance

Home Minister Rajnath Singh was in Tel Aviv in a demonstration of India's new warmth towards Israel.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: November 9, 2014 1:44:51 pm
Rajnath-Israel-2 Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Tel Aviv in Israel on Friday. (Source: PTI)

Last week saw the unfolding of a more balanced policy towards the Middle East under the government of Narendra Modi. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was in Tel Aviv in a demonstration of India’s new warmth towards Israel. Meanwhile in Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs unveiled an effort to intensify the engagement with the Arab world.

Conservatives in India’s foreign policy establishment might find the new approach to the region somewhat disconcerting. Realists, however, would say the the government of Narendra Modi is bringing pragmatism and transparency to India’s Middle East policy. About time.

Consider, in contrast, UPA government’s self-defeating policies towards the region. Yielding to domestic political considerations, the Congress leadership sought to limit political engagement with Israel and undermined the new political consensus on Israel that had emerged under Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The former established full diplomatic relations with Israel and the latter instituted high level political engagement with the Jewish nation. During those years, chief ministers representing various political hues traveled ot Israel. Among those was Jyoti Basu of West Bengal, arguably the tallest communist leader India had produced.

But the Congress President Sonia Gandhi, under pressure from Prakash Karat of CPM, frowned upon the relationship with Israel. Fortunately, the UPA government did not scuttle the security cooperation that had developed in the previous decade.

The UPA government’s schizophrenia made India’s relationship with Israel look clandestine. Cynics in Israel would point out that Delhi was treating Tel Aviv as a “mistress”–engage in private but refuse to be seen with in public.

The Modi government is having none of that. It has renewed open and transparent engagement with Israel. Overruling opposition in the foreign policy establishment, Modi met the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the margins of the United Nations, during his visit to the United States in September.

This has been followed by the visit of the Israeli National Security Adviser to Delhi last month and home minister Singh’s trip to Tel Aviv last week. The two sides have agreed to intensify bilateral security cooperation.

Israel’s elder statesman Shimon Peres, was in Delhi to renew contact with the Indian political leadership. He met Modi as well as Sonia Gandhi. If all goes well, Modi could soon visit Israel and become the first Indian Prime Minister to do so.

It is tempting to see the Modi’s government’s outreach to Israel through an ideological lens. There is no denying the special warmth for Israel within the Hindutva parivar. But the record of the BJP in power, has been anything but ideological.

While expanded the partnership with Israel, Vajpayee devoted special attention to the pursuit of India’s vital interests in the Middle East. The NDA government has begun to do the same.

Modi is acutely conscious of India’s expansive stakes in the Arab Gulf–as the principal external source of India’s energy imports, the most important desttination for India’s labour expatriate labour and a major market for India’s goods.

He is also aware of the significance of the partnership with Iran in securing India’s  interests in Central Asia and the stabilisation of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American troops from there.

Modi’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has already traveled to Bahrain and is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates soon. Modi, will hopefully, travel to the Middle East, early on in the new year. The Foreign Office is also preparing the ground for the first ever ministerial meeting between India and the members of the Arab League in 2015.

The stage then is set for an open and vigorous engagement with the Middle East under the Modi government. The UPA government voluntarily constrained the relationship with Israel in the name of Arab sensitivities. At the same time it was unable to deepen the strategic partnerships with key countries in the Middle East including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Through his decade long tenure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled just four times to the region–and two of them to attend the non-aligned summits. Modi may now be in a position to strengthen India’s partnerships with all the major powers in the region.

(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express)

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