The masterstroke of dehyphenation
Prime Minister Modi’s successful dehyphenation of Middle East management deserves to be applauded
Diplomacy can often be equated with grandmasters playing chess on the geopolitical chessboard. Though not all moves by everyone can always be termed classic that can checkmate others, there are occasions when certain countries have shown incredible acumen in making moves that can truly be termed historic. In the recent past, if there is one country which has shown a similar appetite for masterstrokes, it has to be India in its dealings with Middle Eastern countries.
In August 2016, Saudi Arab conferred on Narendra Modi the highest civilian honour of the Saudi state, namely the King Abdulaziz Sash. A year later, India under PM Modi achieved in Iran what had been pending for years. The first phase of the Chabahar Port, a strategic project on which India has committed $500 million, was made operational in December 2017, paving way for India's access to Afghanistan and eventually Central Asia bypassing Pakistan. No prizes for guessing the intensity of hostility that exists between Saudi Arab and Iran and only a few countries can claim credit in deepening ties with Iran. Without hampering its relation with Saudi Arabia or the US, India, under Prime Minister Modi, is now one of them.
Further, the rift between Qatar and Saudi-led rest of Gulf states notwithstanding, India got a massive concession on price of LNG that it procures from Qatar, managing a waiver of Rs 12,000 crore of penalty and even getting an offer from Qatar to fill India's strategic oil reserves literally for free in lieu of India buying more gas from Qatar. In other words, Prime Minister Modi was honoured by Saudi Arabia with its highest civilian award at a time when Modi-led India has been deepening its ties to a strategic level with both Iran and Qatar. That was dehyphenation at its best, successfully orchestrated by India under Prime Minister Modi.
If the above mentioned are classic examples of India's global realignment strategy through a new paradigm of diplomatic dehyphenation, the best among the lot would surely be India's growing proximity and deeper engagements with Israel even while taking its ties with many Gulf states to a strategic level. In January 2017, India and UAE elevated their bilateral relation to a strategic level through the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between the two nations. In the same year, India also signed a $2 billion missile deal with Israel and later that year, PM Modi made history by becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. Nobody from the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, UAE or Iran complained. By December 2017, UAE had operationalised a $75 billion sovereign fund meant for investments in India, which literally coincided with Iran making operational the first phase of India-funded Chabhar Port. Modi's dehyphenation policy was making its mark.
Embracing Israel: Finally!
Not only did Prime Minister Modi visit Israel but he also paid homage to the holocaust victims at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and also stopped over at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem to pay homage to the founders of Zionism. Not many Indian leaders of the past would have dared to do that even if they had visited Israel by chance. In January 2018, history was again made when the Israeli Prime Minister visited India and was given a grand welcome, a vindication of the natural alignment that existed between the two civilisation-states for centuries and the shared future they plan to explore together. Yet, it was preceded by India voting in the UN in favour of a resolution condemning the American recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. It might seem contradictory but it was perfectly in tune with the Modi Doctrine of taking an independent stand on certain issues even while deepening relations with every country worth the name. Israel did not complain either.
Healing touch to Palestine
A month later, Prime Minister Modi made his maiden journey to Palestine, a first by any Indian Prime Minister, and pledged support for an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Israel was not worried and knew its trusted relation with India is now too strong to be swayed. For India, dehyphenation was complete and the message was straight and simple. India supports the existence of an independent, viable and sovereign Palestine just as much it supports the existence and well-being of Israel. If Palestinian human rights issues need greater global support then it is also equally important to show solidarity with Israel on issues of relentless terror attacks it has faced for decades. For India, solidarity with Palestine remains independent of its deep engagements and strategic ties with Israel. It is no more the former at the cost of the latter. The Palestinian visit was followed by his visit to UAE and Oman. Given the warm welcome he received in both places, it was amply clear that neither had any problem with India's new approach towards Israel and Palestine.
Breaking the shackles of binaries
Throughout the Cold War era, the world was essentially a system of binaries. A nation was either oriented to socialism or capitalism. One was either on the side of the US-led capitalist block or the Soviet-led socialist group. Even though that binary did gradually fade with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, its legacy continued in the Middle East. Most countries often found it difficult to maintain good relations with one without antagonising the other. India was no exception and fell into that trap too. For decades, even after the official diplomatic relation was established in 1992, no Indian Prime Minister dared to visit Israel for the fear of antagonising the Gulf nations on which India had and still has considerable dependence for oil import. Relation with Israel, thus, for decades, was hush-hush. For all practical defence-related purposes, India continued to deepen relations with Israel but stayed away from openly embracing or supporting them. This had to change and this did change under Prime Minister Modi.
Why Israel matters
There are reasons why India had to get out of this binary. It could no more afford to play ball to the stereotyped narratives of terming Israel as a pariah. Given India's complex challenges in the realm of security and agriculture, as also challenges in the areas of creating employment opportunities through the development of an ecosystem of start-ups, it is extremely critical for India to deepen its ties with Israel. If Israel has the technologies, India has the market and the resources to pay for it. If Israel has the ideas, India has the bandwidth to make them viable. If Israelis seek tranquillity then India offers spirituality. This apart, there is trust that has developed for centuries beyond the nuances of official diplomatic relationships. India has been one of the very few places on Earth where Jews have never been persecuted. In other words, the relationship is symbiotic.
Importance of GCC
Likewise, India also cannot afford to ignore the Gulf states. There are pertinent reasons for that. The GCC countries have more than nine million Indian expatriates who work there and send remittance of around $35 billion annually. More than half of India's oil import and 65 per cent of LNG import is from the GCC region. Moreover, even as Europe is gradually stagnating as an economy and the oil market is no more a monopoly of the Gulf states, many of the GCC countries are looking for an assured market for their oil and gas reserves in Asia, as also seeking newer destinations for investing their money and securing their future beyond the oil economy. India's $2.5 trillion economy slated to reach the $ five trillion mark in the next decade is the perfect place for investments by Gulf countries, given the enormous potential India promises for economic growth and return on investments in the decades to come. In other words, if India needs technological collaborations with Israel for taking its defence capabilities and agriculture development to the next level, it equally needs the oil, gas and investments from Gulf countries to constantly fuel the economy.
India: Truly non-aligned now
In certain terms, India has been more non-aligned in the last three years than it had ever been in the past when it used to trumpet about the Non-Alignment Movement. Armed with a $2.5 trillion economy, a $400 billion forex reserve, with an affluent and hardworking diaspora running into several millions, an armed force among the largest in the world, a young and aspiring workforce and a market which can be leveraged to extract favourable bargains, India has now learnt the art of deciding its own path centred around national interests while meandering through tortuous zones of diplomatic pitfalls. It maintains a delicate balance which is aimed neither at appeasing nor antagonising anyone but driven by supreme self-interest for the betterment of a billion plus populace. It also goes without saying that every time India has grown and expanded its sphere of influence, it has resulted in more global peace because the core of Indian philosophy is not expansionist by nature. That is the reason why India's terms of diplomacy are being accepted by all. Much of that credit has to go to Prime Minister Modi and his personal touch in all of it.
(The author is a Geopolitical Analyst and Television Commentator in New Delhi. The views are strictly personal)