Modi government risks squandering its Gulf outreach

India needs to do more to dispel any impressions of condoning religious bigotry
Last Updated : 08 June 2022, 11:14 IST

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Apologies and declaration of respect for all religions notwithstanding after two ruling party spokespersons made derogatory remarks about Islam and Prophet Mohammed, India's ties with the Arab and the wider Islamic world —assiduously cultivated by the Modi government – have taken a huge beating.

India may have moved swiftly to contain the damage caused by the backlash over comments by the BJP spokespersons, disingenuously dubbed "fringe elements" by the government, but its stature as a secular, pluralistic democracy stands somewhat diminished on the larger world stage.

After all, it is not becoming of a nation that has aspirations of being a global power to be seen so crassly hurting the religious sentiments of another community, either within its own boundaries or beyond. While the BJP's polarising agenda may have worked in its electoral favour in the domestic arena, it can have major international ramifications in a hyper-connected world.

The offensive remarks by one of them, who was no less than a national spokesperson of the BJP, evoked a huge backlash from many countries across the Islamic world, many of whom have robust ties with India. The country's diplomatic fraternity was left carrying the can amidst a flurry of summons and statements by countries condemning the derogatory remarks.

The irony is that it was the Modi government that had launched intensive efforts to impart a renewed impetus to New Delhi's engagement, both diplomatic and military, with countries in the Gulf region. Not only had India stepped up its diplomatic engagement with these nations, but even the number and frequency of high-level diplomatic visits to the Arab world increased substantially.

Indeed, it was as part of this re-energised outreach to the Gulf nations that Indian Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu was in Qatar when his hosts decided to voice their strong annoyance at the disparaging remarks made about Islam and Prophet Mohammed.

In a huge diplomatic embarrassment for India, Qatar chose to summon the envoy on June 5 and sought a public apology from the Indian government even as the vice president's visit was underway. In a snub, a ceremonial banquet which was to be hosted by the Deputy Emir of Qatar was cancelled, ostensibly because he had been exposed to someone with Covid.

The same day, two other Indian envoys – in Kuwait and Iran –were summoned by the foreign ministries of these countries within a span of a few hours and a protest was registered over the remarks. Pakistan, expectedly, was also quick to seize the opportunity to summon the Indian envoy over the issue.

This was followed by a flurry of similar statements by other countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Jordan, Libya, Bahrain, Iraq, Maldives and Indonesia. Malaysia too summoned the Indian high commissioner on June 7 to register its condemnation and called upon India "to work together in ending the Islamophobia".

The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), too, made known their anguish over the matter.

The communal juggernaut that's been set rolling in India has now come to bite a nation justifiably proud of its secular credentials. All the diplomatic capital invested by the Modi government in its outreach to the Gulf nations could be frittered away if the current backlash over the Islamophobic comments is not assuaged effectively.

India has huge stakes in the Gulf, with the oil-rich region vital for its energy security needs. It is also important for India in terms of foreign investments and economic ties. The presence of an eight million-strong Indian diaspora in the region and the valuable remittances they send home lends added significance to the region for India.

Among the GCC members, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are major suppliers of crude oil to India. Qatar is the biggest supplier of LNG and LPG to India, accounting for 40 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively, of Indian imports. Home to as many as 7,50,00 Indian expatriates, Qatar also remains crucial for India as it negotiates the rocky path of engaging with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Iraq, which also made known its dismay with the Islamophobic comments, is a key oil supplier to India. So was Iran, until the US sanctions imposed on it forced India to stop importing oil from there. But it remains an important strategic partner as India looks for alternate routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia via the Chabahar port.

The UAE too supplies oil to India, but with this Gulf nation, the bilateral relationship extends far beyond the energy calculus. Indeed, ties have been on an upswing ever since Modi, in 2015, became the first Indian PM to visit the country in 34 years, in a much-needed course correction after years of neglect by successive governments.

The resurgent relations with the UAE have seen the two sides ink the India-UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which is expected to give bilateral trade in goods and services a major boost over the next five years. India is also in the process of working to conclude a trade pact with the GCC.

The UAE is also the ninth biggest foreign direct investor in India, and its sovereign wealth funds invested USD 4.12 billion in India from 2020-to 21. As ruling party members go about bashing Islam, it's worth a mention that the UAE government gifted land for the construction of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi.

New Delhi has already affirmed that the Indian government "accords the highest respect to all religions". It needs to do more to dispel any impressions of condoning religious bigotry, ensuring the "fringe" is not seen as mainstream, both for internal cohesion and security as well as its international credentials in the comity of nations.

(The writer is a senior journalist.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 08 June 2022, 10:11 IST

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