PM Narendra Modi's combative West Asia policy will face its first acid test in ongoing elections

New Delhi’s engagement with West Asia (read the Muslim world) might not be making the headlines but Prime Minister Narendra Modi's diplomatic soundings across the Arab world have found many takers, increasing hopes of a rub-in effect at home to boost the NDA’s secular credentials.

Modi’s idea is to create a greater West Asia policy, pushing relations between India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Qatar and most importantly, Palestine. Signals of these moves will be global but strongly resonate within India, home to an estimated 14 crore Muslims — the second largest population after Indonesia.

Modi, who has standard diplomatic and economic interests, also wants to use this opportunity to reduce Islamabad’s standing in a part of the world from which it has long received blind support. Many are buying into Modi’s theory, claim sources within the Ministry of External Affairs.

File photo of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and UAE's deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

File photo of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

They say important data is trickling in from faraway Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, about Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives using the North African country bordering the Atlantic and Mediterranean as a transit point. “For almost a decade, Morocco didn’t even care to (respond to) repeated requests from New Delhi to share the same data, but now (things are) turning around,” claimed sources.

At the heart of Modi’s push is India’s minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, who has already been to Syria, Iraq and Palestine to gauge minds and sign pacts.

Akbar, once a celebrated editor, rejected requests for interactions but MEA sources said the government was attaching tremendous importance to such moves, the latest being the visit of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, son of UAE’s founding President and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Interestingly, his presence as Chief Guest at the 68th Republic Day celebrations took place after four decades; the move seen as a complete reset of India’s relationship with the Gulf.

“The previous prime minister made over 40 trips to the US but one to UAE – home to an estimated 2.2 million Indians... not one to the Gulf,” the sources added.

Former Indian diplomats say that Modi's move could work at home as well as abroad. Al Nahyan – neither a head of state nor a head of government – is a next generation UAE leader. “Modi is betting on the future because the Crown Prince is a very popular leader in the Gulf and there is increased cooperation between the security agencies of the two countries,” says Hardeep Puri, India’s former permanent representative to the United Nations.

Puri says that such moves – traditionally – send strong signals to Muslims in India who look to the UAE and Saudi Arabia for some kind of mental support. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are known for its concerns for Muslims in India. By making this move, Modi hopes to please Muslims at home – there is an obvious eye on the forthcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh – and also counter next door Islamabad that, over the years, has invested great diplomatic effort in Gulf countries, including the UAE.

“The Crown Prince’s visit is Modi’s effort to build India’s brand again in the Gulf. Indians happy in Gulf will send a strong message to their families back home,” added Puri.

The UAE – India’s second largest export destination – is also India’s third largest trading partner for 2015-16 after China and the US, with bilateral trade hovering around $50 billion. For India, the gains include a defence cooperation pact and an eye-popping $75 billion investment fund for India’s infrastructure (whenever it is signed).

“The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) supplies more than 50 percent of India’s oil and gas and control nearly 45 percent of the world's recoverable oil wealth and 20 percent of gas resources. The GCC seeks India’s vast consumer market,” says Narendra Taneja, a top energy expert.

Equally important is New Delhi’s current interaction with Palestine. The move, claim MEA sources, has come handy for the government in its search for secular parties in the Arab world, especially when India has nothing significant to contribute to the crisis in Syria or Iraq.

Modi knows his government has become closer to Tel Aviv and that there is an inevitable blowback in the Arab world, with Tehran and with the Indian Muslim intellectual class. Hence, showing renewed interest in Palestine is a useful means to help counter this problem.

“India, for decades, has used support for Palestinian nationalism as a foil to counter criticism of its shift to Tel Aviv,” says Aftab Kamal Pasha, a professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

He reminded how in the joint commission meeting, the Palestinians said they were pleased to talk to India because of its presumed influence on the Israelis. “And then, half the Arab world, consumed by even stronger hatreds, is now wooing Israel,” adds Pasha. India, which is a huge importer of Israeli arms, now seeks a security relationship extending to sensitive defence areas like nuclear weapons technology and doctrine. In addition, the current government wants to benefit from Israel’s world class water technology.

Diplomatic observers say that New Delhi’s interest in Palestine is about issues other than Palestine itself. The proposal to build an infotech park in Gaza could easily be the most important and tangible contribution New Delhi can make to the Palestinians.

The MEA seems hyperactive

Last month, Akbar even wrote a letter to the Jamia Millia Islamia University for failing to implement the memorandums of understanding (MoUs) signed between the institute and three Palestinian universities in 2015. In a letter, he asked the university vice chancellor Talat Ahmad why the MoUs – signed with Al Quds, Al Istiklal and Hebron universities – were at a “virtual standstill”, even after a year.

Modi wants results, he realises India’s position is indeed unique – a rare alignment of geopolitical stars – in the West Asian political cauldron. And it is because not many nations have good relations with both Israel and Iran. India-Iran ties, after a lull during the nuclear deal days, are on an all-time high, probably the strongest India has with an Arab/Persian nation. In the event of US-imposed sanctions on Iran being lifted, India stands to gain the most, claim the observers.

It is not just about Palestine or the UAE, Puri says that the coming together of the three Is – India, Iran and Israel – could change world politics.

Modi wants this alliance to provide energy security and keep a check on counter-terrorist groups sprouting in the region. If it eventually happens, he could have put his signature as a world leader who made a difference at an international level, and use this as a ticket to improve his image with Muslims in India.

But will it happen?

Dr Anirban Ganguly, who co-authored the book Modi Doctrine, says that for decades New Delhi’s West Asia policy, which could have a definitive impact on Muslims in India, was held hostage to Islamabad’s diversionary tactics. “But Modi is scripting a new trajectory. Muslims in India, for long, have always wanted the ruling party to have meaningful dialogues with the Arab world,” says Ganguly.

The forthcoming polls in Uttar Pradesh will be the first acid test for Modi and his policies, the state has an estimated 38 million Muslims, the largest minority group.

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Updated Date: Feb 06, 2017 11:29:44 IST

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