Cross-currents of loyalties

India’s Middle-East policy has long been hostage to three vulnerabilities. First,
India imports most of its crude oil from West Asia. Second, over seven million
Indians work in the Middle East. Third, India has a large Muslim population.
New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins have, therefore, turned a blind eye
whenever the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) passes resolutions
criticising India and supporting Pakistan over Jammu & Kashmir.
India has for decades swallowed its pride, voting with the Arab bloc against
Israel at the UN even as the Arab bloc votes for Pakistan over Kashmir. India’s
growing relationship with Israel though has introduced a new factor in this
nuanced game of balancing domestic political interests with India’s expanding
geopolitical role.
This was reflected in the strong demarche the external affairs ministry sent last
Saturday to the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the Palestinian ambassador to
Pakistan, Walid Abu Ali, sharing a stage with the globally designated terrorist
Hafiz Saeed at a major Rawalpindi rally. Within 24 hours, the PA acted. The
Palestinian ambassador to India, Adnan Abu Alhaijaa, confirmed to a leading
Indian daily: “Our ambassador in Pakistan has committed a fault, knowingly or
otherwise. He is being recalled to Ramallah. He will no longer be Palestine
ambassador to Pakistan. Relations with India are very important for us.”
And yet the incident bares the fault lines in India’s Arab-Israel policy. India
recently voted in favour of a UN resolution condemning US President Donald
Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This drew a sharp
protest from Israel which over the years has emerged as India’s major defence
partner. Prime Minister Narendra Modi last July became the first Indian primeminister to visit Israel. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will pay areturn four-day visit to India from January 16.
Despite all this, the principal actors in the frisson over Middle East politics are
themselves under significant political pressure. Netanyahu faces corruption
charges that could see him losing power. An Israeli court has deferred its verdict
against him till the end of January 2018. Trump faces a tough 2018 with the
possibility of impeachment over alleged Russian collusion during the US
presidential election. Modi confronts a challenging raft of eight assembly
elections in 2018 which could stall his political momentum in the run-up to the
2019 Lok Sabha poll.
In Saudi Arabia, 32-year- old crown prince Mohammad bin-Salman, heir to the
throne, has upended Saudi society with gender reforms but also disgraced
himself with his war on Yemen. The blockade of food and medical aid to
Yemen’s starving millions has robbed MBS, as the prince likes to be called, of
his reformist credentials. The other key player in the Middle East, Iran, is being
wracked by violent citizens’ protests across major cities against Tehran’s hard
line government.
In this cauldron, India has a nuanced but robust role to play. A month after
Netanyahu’s visit, Modi flies to Palestine. The visit will be largely symbolic.
Cynics will accuse India of once again balancing Palestinian and Israeli
interests. But Trump’s declaration over Jerusalem has virtually killed the “two-
state” solution. Backed by members of the European Union (EU) and most
other countries, the solution envisaged Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state
existing side by side, with east Jerusalem being the capital of the future
Palestine state. With Trump’s move that solution lies in tatters.
Saudi Arabia has played a deceitful hand in this. In secret talks with Palestinian
Authority (PA) chief Mahmoud Abbas, crown prince Mohammad bin-Salman

told him bluntly to accept a truncated Palestinian state without east Jerusalem.
This has been rejected by the PA which though has neither the military power
nor diplomatic clout to do anything about the Saudi betrayal. Against this
backdrop, the Palestinians can ill afford to alienate a long-time friend like India.
Hence the marching orders to its ambassador in Pakistan for sharing a stage
with Hafiz Saeed.
Will this change the way the Arabs vote on a future India-Pakistan resolution in
the OIC over Jammu & Kashmir? No. In the Middle East, Islamic blood runs
thicker than water. For the present, Modi will focus on welcoming Netanyahu to
India (Ahmedabad is his first stop) followed by the symbolic visit to Palestine.
A more tactical move would be for India to leverage the intensifying rivalry
between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has been annoyed with Pakistan over
skirmishes between Islamabad-funded terrorists and Iranian border guards even
as it seeks Pakistani involvement in its India-aided Chabahar port. The Saudis
too are upset with Pakistan for refusing to send troops for its Islamic coalition
military force waging an unsuccessful war against Yemen. Islamabad pacified
Riyadh by allowing former army chief Rah eel Sharif to head the Saudi-led
coalition which has been humiliated by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in
Yemen.
For India, it is time to refashion its Middle East policy in a region where
equations are fluid and alliances based on expediency. Modi’s engagement with
Israel and Palestine over the next few weeks could be the trigger to shed New
Delhi’s kid gloves approach in a geography that best understands the grammar
of power.

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