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India’s tightrope walk

Prasenjit Chowdhury |

Strong bilateral relationships of days gone by are now coping with the challenges of the 21st century. It is a geopolitical truism that such relationships keep evolving. For instance, Iran, like Pakistan, was one of the so-called Northern Tier anti-Communist states that blocked the Soviet Union from the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. In 1971, even though the United States was barred by law from supplying equipment to Pakistan, and also from permitting its friends to send their American arms and equipment to help the Pakistanis, the White House had quietly instructed the leaders of Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey that “if they decide that their national security requires shipment of American arms to Pakistan, we are obliged to protest, but we will understand. We will not protest with great intensity”.

It is beside the point that the defeat of Yahya Khan and the emergence of Bangladesh could not be averted. Today, after Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran and Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia vowed to back the accord, India is back in the tightrope mode again. It bears recall that Narendra Modi signed a bilateral pact to develop the Chabahar port for which India was to invest $ 500 million, came months after the lifting of international sanctions on Iran following Tehran’s nuclear deal with the Western powers over its contentious atomic programme.

Should India’s relations with nations sharing a long history of friendship with it remain forever to how the US views them? Should India always cast a wary look at America? From an Indian perspective, there are few counterpoints upon which India judges a friendship with another nation, one of which happens to be its relationship with its traditional adversary (Pakistan), or a country with which it nurses a bitter sense of rivalry (China). India’s friendship with Iran is a case in point. While Iran is in a kind of adversarial relationship with Israel, the latter happens to be close to India. While Iran was once debunked by the US as ‘the axis of evil’, India is now quite close to the US. India has also been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, though recently it has showed signs of veering away. Iran has been eager to wreak revenge on Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. Strategically speaking, Iran-China, and Iran-Pakistan ties are quite strong. The problem begins when one nation expects another nation to align the latter’s diplomatic and strategic interests with the former. While this was a regular feature during the Cold War, there is now an increased emphasis more on realpolitik than on ideology.

Things are not simplistic either. If say nation A’s ‘friendship’ with nation C, harms another friendly nation B, with B and C at loggerheads, then there are unforeseen complications. There are certainly no-go areas, for instance, the statist stand of India’s Kashmir policy, its territorial positions, its view on terrorism and any country standing at variance with India on such core areas cannot be counted as India’s friend. China’s diplomatic and logistical support to Pakistan, like shelving Hafeez Sayeed, or propping up CPEC at the expense of India’s territorial concerns, or Russia’s advocacy of the OBOR urging India to join the bandwagon, or supplying Pakistan ammunition that might be used against India are fodder to undermine India’s relationship with China and Russia. Therefore, to remain neutral and yet to be friendly with two nations mutually hostile to one another is akin to wading through landmines.

Which are the most crucially important countries to India? They are the US, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, the EU, and Britain to name just a few, not to speak of its immediate neighbours ~ Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and also of course Pakistan. Bilateral relationships are often overlapping; and what is sauce for the goose cannot be sauce for the gander.

Think about some of the contretemps of the US supplanting Russia as India’s leading imprimatur, of the respective antagonisms among Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis their relationship with India, a neo-nationalist China vying with a resurgent Japan in a battle of attrition for power and influence in Asia in particular, each seeking India by its side, and last but not the least, a post-Brexit Britain depending on India which is eager to capture business and expand influence both with Britain and the EU. While India, despite its close relations and convergence of interests with Iran, voted against the latter in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, it clearly was unwilling to stop trade relations altogether even in the face of mounting pressure by the US and Europe, and a significant reduction in oil imports from Persian oil fields in 2012.

India’s desire to move closer to Iran suffered from an anxiety of offending the US, with which, post the dissolution of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991, we were looking forward to building a strategic relationship. Another reason could be India’s dependence on Israel as a key supplier of military technology and hardware and its strong relationship on the basis of shared strategic interests with Israel that came, truth be told, at the expense of its relationship with Iran.

It was not that both India and Iran could not see the changing contours, but both faced geopolitical constraints. For instance, besides the Iranian perception that India was closer to Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, the attempt to foster closer economic ties with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries and the subsequent inflow of Indian labour and managerial talent to them cemented a stronger relationship with the Arab nations, which were openly hostile to Iran.

There are tricky formulations. If India considers itself mature enough to counterbalance its relationship with Iran, Israel and the US, how can it blame Russia, China and Israel for having a truck with Pakistan or have reservations if they do? If Maldives and Nepal feel that they should have a counterfoil to India in China, there is little Delhi can do about it. The friendship between two nations should grow independent of hostilities. Mr Modi has cultivated ties with the US ignoring concerns from traditional friends like Russia and formidable rivals like China, but the terms of the quid pro quo under Donald Trump are not very clear.

His tentative course-corrections, one assumes, are similar to the realisation by both the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, that congenial conferences at the White House haven’t quite translated into expected returns. India should be able to pick its friends and deal with its enemies without ever losing sight of its long-term and short-term objectives. However much it weighs the value of its relationship with US, so assiduously crafted by Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, its ability to walk on a tightrope must not exclude its traditional friends, pre-eminently Iran and Russia.

The writer is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues.