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Avoidable Intrigues

Vajpayee was to use his brilliant ‘Sherpa’ and handpicked Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, for thawing and warming relations with Saudi Arabia, in particular. Jaswant, with a manifest sense of history and destiny would soon charm the House of Saud with his own desert ancestry and lifelong interest in horses


Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee represented the opposite ends of political ideologies, but both were cut from the same cloth of statesmanship, erudition and foresight. Both were avowed internationalists who had a scholarly grip on global affairs, albeit one that was tempered which an abiding sense of civilisational ethos, moral compass and unflinching principles. There was more in common between the personas, thinking and spirit of the two men-of-letters, as opposed to differences, which led some to call Vajpayee ‘BJP’s Nehru’! Befittingly, both held the mantle of India’s Foreign Ministry with much aplomb, prudence and prescience.

Nehru had deftly and strategically reposed his support in the Arab causes after independence, to blunt and deligitimise the competitive logic of a ‘religious state’ as underlined in Israel then, as the idea of a ‘Secular India’ too was similarly conflated to a religiously ordained Pakistan. This pro-Arab tilt may be seen as counter-intuitive, given Pakistan’s natural traction in the Arab world, but Nehru realised the perceived fears of India’s own minority and thought it morally right and Gandhian to uphold the Palestinian cause, even at the cost of realpolitik gratification. The ‘morality’ of Indian diplomacy that was conceived and nurtured in the formative conscience of India, had inspired a young Member of Parliament from the opposition, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was to later burnish India’s highground, restraint and responsible position as a conscientious sovereign, decades later, in the NDA governments that he led.

Dealing diplomatically with the dynastic-monarchical Arab sheikdoms is an inherently tricky task, as it is rife with fickle ‘palace- intrigues’ that are based on coercive, illiberal and often amoral insistences that test the equivalences and steadfastness of decidedly ‘moral’ democracies like India. Nehru was faced with an immediate dilemma of assuaging and impressing the superior ‘idea of India’ over its hyphenated rival, Pakistan which unabashedly invoked the religious card with Arab princelings. Nehru made more seamless causes with Egyptian President Nasser, who like Nehru was favourably disposed towards Non-Alignment and was a rival of the Arab sheikdoms that preferred Pan-Islamism, as opposed Nasser’s more inclusive Pan-Arabism.

As the custodian of the holy mosques, Saudi Arabia was of significance to Indian Muslims, as also from the perspective of securing energy and the concerns of its growing diaspora in the Kingdom. Nehru countered Pakistan’s propaganda judiciously and was greeted by chants of ‘Rasoul as Salaam’ (Welcome Messenger/ Prophet of Peace) when visiting the Kingdom. The vital lesson of not taking anything for granted in dealing with the Arab princelings came with King Faisal disposing of his brother and with Nehru’s own death, which soon tilted relations back to favouring Pakistan. Decades later, Vajpayee was to use his brilliant ‘Sherpa’ and handpicked Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, for thawing and warming relations with Saudi Arabia, in particular. Jaswant, with a manifest sense of history and destiny would soon charm the House of Saud with his own desert ancestry and lifelong interest in horses. The moribund relations breathed life again, as Jaswant gently, sensitively and loftily reiterated India’s position on various contentious issues, sincerely and uprightly. Vajpayee, like Nehru, was not personally constrained by petty, divisive or partisan agendas ~ he could and did go beyond. Soon, retaining India’s patented ‘moral diplomacy’ and without unnecessarily ingratiatingly itself to anyone, India laid the foundation for winning over the Arab capitals, on its own dignified terms.

Today, Saudi Arabia’s heir apparent, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is subjected to unsavory and disreputable publicity as declassified American intelligence reports trace the brutal assassination of journalist Khashoggi, directly to the unscrupulous Prince. Equally, Joe Biden got a taste of having to balance values with necessities, as he meekly avoided penalizing Prince Salman directly, after having called Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ state with ‘no redeeming social values’ before he became the President. While still short of Donald Trump’s brazenly transactional foreign policy dictated solely by personal whims, low gas prices and sale of military wherewithal to the Arabs, which virtually resulted in a ‘cover-up’ of Prince Salman’s misdemeanors, Biden has cautiously pushed the envelope of ‘moral diplomacy’ but only just, as the proverbial chickens have come home to roost with America’s earlier complicity, acquiescence and amorality. No alliance, agreement or understanding with the Arab Sheikhdoms is without a moral catch or susceptibility ~ even Pakistanis increasingly face the same, as money has become the most important religion!

Against this backdrop, the resurfacing of international news that in 2018, Indian commandos had raided a boat in which an Emirati Princess was fleeing from her regressive world, and then handed her over to Emirati soldiers, who forced her back into incarceration, is atypical of Indian diplomacy, if true. Indeed, the world of diplomacy is full of backroom compromises, interventions and facilitations that are kept away from the public glare, yet the sense of proportion, measure and limits are always implied. Differences between personal and sovereign matters are usually blurred in autocratic Arab regimes; however, care in delineating the two spheres and walking the tightrope of ‘balance’, is imperative.As an example, the Pakistanis fall over themselves to court the Arab princelings by arranging their Houbara hunting jaunts, personalised chauffeuring by the Prime Minister and retrogradely invoking religiousity as their calling card ~ but even that servility comes to naught when a ‘bigger market’ like India is the alternative. Personal matters within Arab palaces have their boundaries and sensitivities that are best not facilitated, one way or the other, as relationships earned through these are sustainable. However, one based on ‘morality’ and the ‘big picture’ stands the test of time. The muck involved in the Arab ‘palace intrigues’ had led to the implosive and self-cleansing ‘Arab Spring’, however that too was crushed. India has the benefit of scale, trained personnel, entrepreneurship and untapped socio-economic opportunities (besides, ‘moral’ bearing) to always remain preferred ~ it need not forsake its historical assets for transitory, amoral or personalised favours to endear itself. The Americans, who are more heavily invested in the Middle East, realise the long-term consequences of making shortterm decisions with such autocracies. India needs to remember those lessons and put its best foot forward, not surreptitiously and clandestinely, but confidently and morally.