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Westward Ho!

Priya Singh and Krishnan Srinivasan |

Last July Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. He made no stopover at Ramallah, the Palestine ‘capital’, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was left unmentioned and an Indian spokesman acclaimed the successful de-hyphenation of India’s relations with Israel and Palestine, with India’s “pursuit of its relations with the Jewish State on its own merit.” In actuality, it signifies a shift from behind-closed-doors bilateral interactions, anchored in military and intelligence contacts, to a public partnership.

From Israel’s viewpoint, the visit of the Prime Minister of India, which not long ago insisted that its passports were “valid for any country except Israel”, was of great significance, and Prime Minister Netanyahu reciprocated with a return visit to India in January, the timing coinciding with a movement by Palestinian citizens of Israel calling for equal rights.

Yet, doubts could persist regarding the durability of the relationship, and an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reminded its readers about the hazard associated with a friendship with India, and specifically its democratic culture where politicians are accountable to the electorate, comparing it with the decision-making procedures in China.

Modi then paid a three hour visit to Ramallah in February, again a first for an Indian Prime Minister. He declared that India looks forward to the establishment of a “sovereign, independent state of Palestine in a peaceful manner soon.” This was a departure from the statement made last November, which stated “We hope for early realisation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestinian state, coexisting peacefully with Israel,” and also differed from one made last May in the presence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which envisaged a “sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestinian state.”

The exclusion of the terms “united” and “viable” could be a shift from the conventional Indian stance, the perspective now being that there could be no return to the pre-1967 borders, prior to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. New Delhi, despite its muted response to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, voted in favour of the resolution in the UN General Assembly that rejected the US action. Clearly, the rationale determining the trajectory of India-Palestine relations lies in the strategic and military equations between India and Israel.

Modi’s visit to Palestine was clubbed with his calls on the United Arab Emirates and Oman, where there was the signing of various trade, defence, cultural and infrastructure agreements, the most important being the access provided to the strategic Duqm Port for military use. This is situated on the south-eastern coast of Oman facing the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, in close propinquity to Chabahar in Iran. Along with Assumption Island in Seychelles and Agalega in Mauritius, Duqm is consistent with India’s maritime project to counter China’s ambitious plans for maritime connectivity as a part of its Belt and Road initiative.

With the desire of New Delhi to establish ‘smart cities’, the Arab world assumes significance due to requirements for both investment and models to replicate. Cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Muscat can give a lead in terms of architecture, urban planning and technology. With cities being projected as the hub of governance and where the country’s vitality is dependent on its cities, this becomes a key area of cooperation.

Emphasis on bilateral relations based on India’s oil and energy requirements should not limit the wider scope and opportunities that can add new and mutually advantageous connections. While remittances from Indian expatriates from the Gulf region continue to provide the backbone of bilateralism, alarm signals arising from prospects of indigenization, locally termed Emiratization, Omanization or Saudization, aimed at calibrating the demand and supply of expatriate and indigenous workers, must compel India to hasten the diversification of the content of its ties.

The degree of exclusivity that India enjoys in West Asia is substantially due to the rich multi-layered historic, cultural and economic linkages which pre-date formal, structured and institutionalized political connections. The advantage of familiarity has been grasped by New Delhi. But the rhetoric employed by the Indian government could remain only that, reflecting the criticism of its ‘Look East and Act East’ policy. Agreements and projections of collaborations are one aspect of the narrative, while actualization is a different matter.

As always, implementation by Indian bureaucracy is lamentable and Modi has been unable to harness his officials to deliver his intentions. India’s ambition at closer connectivity with the Arab world is thus both an opportunity and challenge.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent visit to India reciprocated Modi’s visit to Tehran in 2016, which had culminated in a trilateral infrastructure accord between India, Iran and Afghanistan. Both leaders face distressing times at home; Iran has been witnessing widespread protests arising from economic stagnation, corruption, mounting income disparity and resentment against the expenditure incurred in waging wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, apart from the absence and curtailment of various fundamental rights. In India the current banking crisis from bad loans is the latest of several corruption scandals in addition to perceived resentment among farmers and sundry under-privileged sections of society.

Iran is once again haunted by the spectre of sanctions as the Trump regime, in league with Israel and Saudi Arabia, pursues a policy of isolating Tehran, abrogating the nuclear accord negotiated by Obama, and engineering regime change. Within the region, a sharp Shia-Sunni divide has come to the fore after the US-led war to topple Saddam Hussein. India is not a party to this convoluted scenario in the Middle East but in the context of competing with China and the China-Pakistan nexus, engaging with Iran becomes high priority for India.

Access to and through the Chabahar port is necessary for India to gain access to Central Asia and it would facilitate exports to Afghanistan, bypassing the obstructions of Pakistan. From this perspective the contract for lease for a period of 18 months of the Shahid Behesti Port, a segment of the broader Chabahar project that was signed between India and Iran, is an important step forward though it is premature and implausible to consider this an Indian response to Gwadar in Pakistan, which is a vital component of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Besides which, Chabahar is yet only partially functional, because India’s inert and ineffective bureaucracy and logistical snags triggered by US-sponsored international sanctions against Iran, have made progress sluggish.

Notwithstanding the historical and civilizational ties between Iran and India and the geopolitical aspirations of each country, the true significance of Rouhani’s visit lies in the fact that bilateral relations have profound implications for both in terms of diplomacy, economics and geostrategy. India’s primary purpose is to assert its strategic autonomy, and it needs Iran’s active cooperation to accomplish its aim to gain outreach to the extended Central Asian neighbourhood. Iran for its part views India as an associate in its vision of a multipolar world, with a shared discomfiture with regard to the American role, especially under Trump, in the entire West Asian region.

The writers are, respectively, Associate Director, Asia in Global Affairs, and India‘s former Foreign Secretary