Bridging the gulf between India and Gulf
Narendra Modi's frequent tours abroad make him the first Prime Minister of India to visit Saudi Arabia, UAE, and now Qatar in quick succession in the first half of his term. But is he over emphasising the importance of Gulf countries to India’s foreign policy? If not, has India’s policy so far been flawed?
Did previous governments find a place for the lakhs of Indians toiling under the most challenging and demanding circumstances in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nation states in their policy?
States like Kerala, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and also to some extent Gujarat, heavily depend on remittances from Indians based in the Gulf. Although these remittances contribute to the economy of these states, India had never thought of devising a strategy to benefit from it.
Historically, India had also lost out to western countries, especially the UK and the US when it came to benefiting from the oil boom in the Gulf. India remained satisfied with a small share of that booming economy in the form of wages for supplying cheap workers.
Before 1947, Indian traders called the shots in the Gulf region. It was the Indian postage stamp and currency that used to run the region and its various systems. In business, Indian traders dominated the scene. But due to a lack of a coherent Gulf-centered government policy, we started losing our traders to the west. Business ties between the countries were left to the efforts of individual businessmen, who were often harassed by a corrupt Indian bureaucracy.
Link languages between India and the Gulf used to include Hindi, Urdu, Kacchi, etc. But these languages also lost out to English. India was busy establishing Hindi and cultural centres in Europe and Canada, instead of strengthening existing relations with our Gulf partners. As a result, marriages between Indians and Gulf citizens stopped. Roti was replaced by bread from London. Boli became English, and the lungi was replaced by trousers and shirt.
In the past, members of the Gulf royal family and other rich people would throng to Indian universities for their higher education. But yet again, due to a lack of proper policy, Indian universities lost out to their counterparts in the UK and Canada. Then came an era when western educated youths from the Gulf started to look at India with contempt. For them, India and its merit remained limited to a market for cheap labour. The Indian government also more of less remained happy with this tag and never intervened to change this image.
India benefitted hugely from heavy remittances from the Gulf. But it never bothered to address the problems of Indians working there, who suffered at the hands of local employers, recruiting agents, corrupt Indian officials and touts. Rather it supported exporting manpower and earning money that way. This also contributed to trafficking women, men, and even children for a thriving sex market, labour racket, and camel race in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
It was not a different story for neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. These countries competed with India in the supply of cheap labourer. Nepal has a better record on this count. But the problems of Gulf-based NRIs never figured on India's agenda.
With Modi's visit to a workers camp in Doha, it seems likely that some solutions, safeguards, and welfare measures would be announced by this government. These measures will not only benefit these hapless workers but also the ruling party BJP, which can look forward to creating a permanent support base in Gulf and back home in Kerala, Gujarat, UP, and Bihar. As stated earlier, families from these states solely survive on remittances from the Gulf.
In this changed circumstance, India can also benefit from its enhanced image as a country of skilled manpower and professionals, who are heading multinationals giants, like Pepsico, Mastercard, Visa, Google and Microsoft and emerge as an equal business partner in Gulf rather than remain limited to being a mere supplier of cheap labour.
By now, Indian traders and professionals, who ventured out in the most trying circumstances those days have also proven themselves through their hard work, dedication, and professionalism.
Highly-paid western expatriates have been replaced by Indians in almost every sphere. It is very common now in GCC countries to find Indian professionals occupying the top posts and running businesses, unlike in the bygone days.
India can also look forward and plan to benefit from this huge market by introducing its banking system, power, telecommunication, aviation, real estate, construction, and even by introducing railways and metros to Gulf, where people still travel either by road or by air.
India is suitably placed to even foster better military ties and provide all kind of logistic and training support to armed forces in the GCC - which still remains dominated by western power.Once again attracting students from GCC and marketing India as the best medical and educational tourism destination should be high on its agenda apart from promoting Indian language, art and culture, and films. It is high time we learnt from the past of losing a traditional and trusted ally who is located at just two hours away from Mumbai and Delhi.
Gulf should not remain a traditional market to export rice, cereals, cheap manpower and meat but also a market for value based goods and highly skilled manpower. Improvements in these areas can re-create stronger India-Gulf ties.
Countries in the Gulf are ready to accord due importance to India, because of its importance as a growing market and the home to the highest Muslim population in the world. GCC states are fully aware of India’s potential as an emerging market. Indians make up the biggest expatriates’ community in the six GCC states, who have made their mark in most challenging circumstance with virtually no government support. Can the talents of these Indian expat communities be further utilised at home?
It is the Gulf-based Indians, who helped India fight the economic sanction imposed by the US, after Pokharan blast in the late 1990s. Under the current regime, their financial muscle could be once again used to make India a country of Modi’s dream - provided we are ready for an aggressive and humanitarian Gulf-centric foreign policy.
(Ajay Kumar, is a senior journalist, who has worked for leading Gulf-based dailies. He is also National Spokesperson and National Secretary of Lok Jansakti Party. The views expressed are strictly personal.)