Modi's overtures bold

Modi's overtures bold

The presence of the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries at the Republic Day Parade last month was an impressive signal of the success of India's engagement with South East Asia. Equally impressive has been India's engagement with West Asia over the past three years. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's fruitful three-day visit shows that India has successfully navigated the latter region's fault lines and contradictions to expand bilateral ties with its major countries. The India-Iran joint statement shows that both countries addressed each other's concerns on terrorism, connectivity and the Iran nuclear deal.

West Asia is in turmoil. Growing young populations are straining the social structures of many states. Violent and extremist theologies and inter-state competition are re-casting regional alignments. The Israel-Palestine dispute endures and festers. The Iran-Saudi Arabia competition has assumed new forms and manifested in continuing civil conflict in Yemen. It was also partially responsible for the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. US President Donald Trump's determination to reverse the basic thrust of his predecessor's approach to the region and his threats to walk out of the Iran nuclear deal has added to the confusion and unpredictability.

West Asia's sharp divisions have not deterred Prime Minister Narendra Modi from seeking to enhance relationships including through bold personal diplomacy. No previous prime minister ventured to move so, even though all of them acknowledged the region's significance to India's interests. In particular, there was great reluctance to move ahead with relations with Israel.

India traditionally supported the Palestinian cause. Many countries had sympathy for the injustice suffered by the Palestinians but that did not deter them from developing ties with Israel. However, Indian leaders were constrained by domestic considerations. Cold War demands and a desire not to offend Islamic countries also played a part. Consequently, India boxed itself into a corner, and it is to former prime minister Narasimha Rao's credit that he decided to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.

A robust bilateral economic and defence relationship has grown in the past 25 years, and yet Rao's successors thus far had avoided visiting Israel. This caution was unwarranted, as shown by Modi visiting both Israel and Ramallah and inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to India. Successful foreign policy requires the management of contradictions.

Today, no Islamic country is as hostile to Israel as Iran. It speaks and acts against Israel's interests and refuses to accept its right to exist. It also supports Hamas and Hezbollah. The former was committed to the destruction of Israel but has moderated its stand to one of not recognising it. The latter is still dedicated to undoing the Jewish state.

Modi's exuberant praise of Israel when he visited that country last year and his lavish welcome of Netanyahu has not come in the way of Rouhani's decision to visit India. This is certainly on account of India's growing economic and strategic importance in the region. It is also because these oil and gas rich countries need the Indian market as US dependence on West Asian energy has fallen to zero.

Modi has also paid great attention to the Arab Gulf states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry between these countries is historic on several counts
- sectarian, ethnic and political. After the Khomeini revolution, Saudi Arabia and Iran have competed for the leadership of the Islamic Ummah, resulting in a deepening of the Sunni-Shia divide.

The Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and US and UN sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear programme constrained its outreach in the Ummah and its influence in the region. The 2015 nuclear deal made it more assertive and its actions in creating an arc of Shia power stretching from Iraq to Syria began to redefine regional equations. Now, Trump's West Asia policy will again restrict the Iranian ambit of action, even if its ambitions remain.

All through, since OPEC raised oil prices in 1973 and that began to transform the Arab Peninsula countries, India has wisely refrained from taking sides in West Asia's regional politics. It has not tried to act beyond its capacities to shape events in the region. It has simultaneously sought to develop relations with Iran and Arab Peninsula states. Its energy, commercial and economic as also security interests have demanded a greater intensification of ties. As India's power has grown, these countries have also responded well and taken pro-active measures, too.

In India's interests

Where Modi has made a difference is in quickening the pace of political interaction with countries on opposite sides of the regional divide. The fact that he has not hesitated to visit Riyadh, Tehran, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and now Muscat, which no single Indian prime minister did in one term of office, demonstrates an assertion that India will act to foster ties as India's interests demand, even if these capitals have problems with each other. This has required a focus on individual relations and a scrupulous avoidance of trying to act as a peacemaker, let alone as a big brother.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed are challenging conservative social practices in their societies. They are partially responding to the urges of their youth for greater social freedom. In addition, they are seeking to erode the hold of extremist thinking that drives the youth into the arms of violent groups such as IS and al-Qaeda. Particularly noteworthy is Abu Dhabi's decision to allow the construction of temples and gurudwaras. This decision to show Islam as a moderate and liberal faith is controversial within the UAE.

Modi witnessed the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the temple via video conferencing. It would be wise to let decisions that Arab leaderships take for allowing the practice of other faiths be entirely domestic and projected as such. No special enthusiasm should be officially shown on such issues. Anti-Indian forces should not be allowed a handle to spread mischief against the country.

India's diplomacy will have to remain nimble in West Asia, continue its focus on building bilateral ties and avoid getting caught in regional crossfire.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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