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Where east and west meet

Agenda for Dr Singh’s new term: the long overdue strategic outreach to the Muslim world

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
May 22, 2009 2:04:56 am

If there is one overarching foreign policy priority for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his second term,it is the long overdue strategic outreach to the Muslim world. A sustained effort to re-engage the major Muslim nations is essential in managing many of India’s internal and external security challenges. They range from the post-Mumbai imperatives of counter-terrorism at home to ending,once and for all,Pakistan’s support to anti-India extremist groups.

New Delhi’s renewed focus on the Muslim world should help stabilise the subcontinent,rejuvenate the “Look East” policy,and lay the foundations for a new “Look West” policy. Above all,it forms the basis for a credible Indian response to the new US strategy in the Great Game territory,the Af-Pak region.

India’s strategic imperatives and opportunities in the Muslim world are underlined by some important recent developments. At home,the CPM’s crude attempts to project the UPA government’s foreign policy as “anti-Muslim” have come a cropper. It is the CPM,in fact,that lost badly needed Muslim support in Bengal.

There is no doubt that during the Bush years,the relations between the United States and the Islamic world touched a new low and complicated New Delhi’s efforts to build partnerships with both Washington and the major Muslim powers.

Bush’s successor,Barack Obama’s determined outreach to the Islamic world now allows India to simultaneously upgrade its engagement with both in pursuit of self-interest and without having to look over its shoulder.

If the external environment is propitious for an Indian initiative towards the Islamic world,New Delhi’s own national security challenges demand it. The intolerable aggression against Mumbai last November was not the first terror strike on India; nor is it likely to be the last.

Bringing the Mumbai culprits to book and deterring future terror attacks demand that New Delhi explore all possible means to get at the very source of Pakistan’s enduring hostility towards India.

The current American pressures on the Pakistan army to redefine its threat perceptions away from India and focus on religious extremism that threatens its very existence are unprecedented and significant.

Although the changing US attitudes towards Pakistan are welcome in New Delhi,they are certainly not sufficient to ensure lasting peace with Islamabad. That effort can only be Indian.

Few Indian prime ministers have invested as much political capital as Manmohan Singh has in negotiating a political settlement with Pakistan. Well before Mumbai,Pakistan’s internal dynamics had cast a shadow over the prospects for clinching what he had begun. If India is to resume the stalled peace process and take it forward,it will need all the help it can get from friends in the Islamic world.

Four important caveats,however,are in order as we consider a new strategy towards the Muslim world. For one,New Delhi must be utterly sensitive to the extraordinary diversity and conflict in the Muslim world. Note for example the growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran in West Asia as well as the Af-Pak region. While some countries are drifting towards extremism,others like Indonesia are becoming solid democracies.

Two,India’s relationship with the Islamic world is not defined by religion alone. A range of shared legacies — ethnicity with Bangladesh,culture with Indonesia,history with West Asia to name a few — drive this complex engagement.

Three,in reaching out to the Muslim world,India must avoid at all costs the tokenism of the past. Key Islamic nations see India as a rising power and want New Delhi to contribute to the pursuit of their own national interests. They have no value for India’s empty sloganeering. None of them has asked for India to downplay ties to the US or snap the relationship with Israel. What they seek are purposeful bilateral ties with New Delhi and greater Indian role in shaping regional politics and promoting economic prosperity.

Four,at a moment when the US seems headed down the path of relative decline,Western Europe is marginalised,and China is rapidly rising,India needs to craft its own independent strategic approach to maintain the balance of power in the Muslim world.

A good place to unveil India’s new strategy is Bangladesh,which is vital for South Asia’s progress towards political moderation,economic modernisation and regional integration.

Given the huge popularity of Sonia Gandhi in Bangladesh,Dr Singh might want to persuade the Congress president to make an early visit to Dhaka along with Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Together,with the redoubtable prime minister of Bangladesh,Sheikh Hasina,Sonia and Mamata could electrify the subcontinent’s eastern marches.

Looking further east,Indonesia — the world’s largest Islamic nation,a successful democracy and a rising economic power — has been crying out for India’s attention. Building a strategic partnership with Jakarta would rejuvenate India’s Look East policy that hit a political plateau a while ago.

Turning our gaze west,India’s summits with the leaders of Saudi Arabia,Iran and Turkey have been long overdue. An early visit by the prime minister to these three countries,all of which directly influence developments in the Af-Pak region,could form the basis for a new “Look West” policy.

An India that re-connects with Islamic neighbours towards the east and west will be better positioned to cope with our urgent national security problems linked to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If Dr Singh can define and sustain an activist policy towards Kabul and Islamabad,India’s relationships with the US and other major powers will take care of themselves. For the world is going to look at India for the foreseeable future through the prism of Af-Pak instability.

The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore

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