When Narendra Modi Goes to the Holy Land

India's interests in West Asia are three-fold and they all need safeguarding: Defence ties with Israel; energy and economic ties with the Gulf; and strategic ties with Iran.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: PTI.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: PTI.

Sunday’s announcement by External Affairs Minister Sushma  Swaraj that Narendra Modi will shortly be the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Israel is not surprising. Indeed, a visit has been on the cards ever since Modi’s government came to power a year ago. Not only does the Bharatiya Janata Party leader have a strong personal relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he also exemplifies the deep and abiding camaraderie that has existed between the hard right of the Zionist movement and our own right-wing Hindutva elements, brought together by the shared sentiment of retrieving some notion of historic destiny.

This aspiration has put both movements in conflict with “Islam” — in one case the Palestinian people, and in the other case the Muslims of India, whose ancestors, in the Hindutva narrative, had usurped the sacred land of Bharat, perpetrated extraordinary atrocities, and even now, after Independence, continue to be pampered and appeased. In both narratives, Islam and the Muslim people are seen as the despised “Other” with whom no accommodation is possible.

In fact, Hindutva cadres are inspired by Israel’s military successes and its use of force against the Palestinians and other Arab countries. They believe this is a good model to emulate against Pakistan and homegrown Muslim terrorists, and contrast it with the pusillanimity that has apparently characterised India’s own response to Pakistan-sponsored terror.

India established diplomatic ties with Israel during the reign of a Congress Prime Minister – P.V. Narasimha Rao – and went on to develop close bilateral relations with Tel Aviv, particularly through defence purchases, including high-tech products, that have enhanced India’s capabilities. There have also been reports that India has turned to Israel for equipment and training in combatting terrorism.

However, while relations with Israel have flourished, there has been a lack of genuine warmth, as India continues to believe a historic injustice had been done to the Palestinian people and that this issue needs to be seriously addressed. Successive Indian governments, including the one led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, regularly expressed support for the Palestinian cause, severely criticized Israeli atrocities at various international fora, and extended substantial financial assistance to the Palestine Authority. Some observers fear this could change under the Modi administration, although so far, India has continued to stick to its traditional position at the United Nations. In December 2014, for example, India joined other parties to the Geneva Convention in expressing “deep concern” at Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements there.

No place for communal prism

Throughout Modi’s election campaign and his year-long administration, his words and actions have been closely scrutinised to see whether he remains a Hindutva ideologue or is indeed the leader of all Indians. His foreign visits and remarks to world leaders have been similarly analysed to see whether he is willing to engage with “Muslim” countries. In short, the Prime Minister is constantly being measured on the scale of communal accommodation, with the divide between his votaries and detractors remaining as wide as ever.

The announcement of the Israel visit is, therefore, likely to be measured not in terms of national interest or the normal engagement of India’s leaders with foreign nations, but through the prism of communal politics. This is likely to be the line taken not just by the BJP’s Congress critics; sadly, even Hindutva zealots will seek to project the Israel visit as a celebration of ties with a powerful opponent of “Muslims”.

Even before Swaraj’s announcement, several misplaced critics had noted that in all his numerous foreign forays, the Prime Minister had failed to include a “Muslim” country in his itinerary. In his time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had also been criticised for not visiting the Gulf countries, but this was seen as a diplomatic shortcoming; there was no communal stigma attached to him. Modi does not have this luxury. In any case, Manmohan Singh silenced his critics with his visit to Saudi Arabia in February 2010.

In my view, viewing national and foreign affairs through a communal prism is one of the most pernicious, destructive and self-defeating features of the Indian scene. It would be far more useful to see the proposed visit to the Holy Land as the commencement of Modi’s engagement with the complex politics, economics and culture of West Asia – with which India has longstanding ties and crucial and abiding interests.

New faultlines in West Asia

Over the past four years, the West Asian scenario has been so radically transformed as to have very little connection with what had gone before. Earlier, the region presented for outside powers a simple Arab versus Israel dichotomy, with the Palestine issue at the heart of it. But, as long ago as 2003, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had put forward the Arab Peace Plan that promised full diplomatic ties to Israel in return for Tel Aviv seriously addressing Palestinian interests. Since then, other developments have effected extraordinary changes: the US assault on Iraq, the proliferation of Al Qaeda, and then, with the onset of the Arab Spring, a demand for all-round reform in the Arab polities. The scenario has been further complicated by the US-Iran engagement on the nuclear issue, the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, and the rise of the ‘Islamic State’.

Today, West Asia is witnessing two serious internal divides, one between Saudi Arabia and Iran, locked in strategic and sectarian competition, and the other within the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] who disagree on the issue of political Islam. These contentions have sowed the seeds of a sectarian divide which threatens the integrity of every country in the region and has generated conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. At the same time, the region faces the scourge of jihad from two sources, Al Qaeda and the newly resurgent IS.

These contentions have given rise to three new developments: first, the increasing GCC disenchantment with the US, with the GCC unhappy with the American position on political reform and its burgeoning ties with Iran, and seeking an to play an independent role in regional affairs. Second, the US-Iran interaction has encouraged some degree of covert Saudi-Israel coordination, particularly to lobby jointly in Washington against the Iran deal; and, third, a distance has emerged between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations on the Iran deal, which has deeply divided the political establishments in both countries.

Keeping sight of India’s interests

Amidst these extraordinary transformations, India’s interests need to be safeguarded. Briefly, these are: defence ties with Israel; energy and economic ties with the Gulf; and strategic ties with Iran to protect our interests in Afghanistan and provide us with links to Central and beyond.

The Gulf, as the principal source of India’s energy requirements, is central to our energy security interests: it meets 75% of our oil needs at present; as our demand increases in coming years, India’s dependence will go up to 90% by 2035. Again, the GCC is India’s largest trading partner as an economic grouping, with two-way trade being more than our ties with the European Union, ASEAN and North America. The UAE is also our premier export destination. In fact, at least four GCC countries figure in India’s top 10 trade partners. We also have an eight-million strong community in the GCC that remits annually $35 billion to the national exchequer. Their welfare is a primary consideration for all Indian governments.

Beyond oil and gas, India’s partnership with the Gulf is expected to deepen with increased two-way investments and joint ventures. In fact, GCC investment is expected to be crucial for the development of our infrastructure and our manufacturing capacities. Similarly, Indian companies are emerging as important participants in the national development projects being floated in the Gulf. With the relaxation of sanctions, Iran will regain its position as a major energy provider, even as our companies seek opportunities to participate in the renovation, upgrading and expansion of the country’s energy and infrastructure facilities.

Over the last decade, India’s ties with the Gulf have acquired a strategic value in that, on the basis of a series of bilateral security agreements, we have become partners in combatting terrorism and extremism. Our defence ties are also witnessing an upswing.

It is important to note that India’s ties with West Asia have never been tainted with the communal tinge. Hindu business communities have lived and flourished in the ports of the Gulf for several centuries, as have Arab traders in our coastal towns. In Oman, hundreds of families from Kutch have Omani nationality. Even today, millions of Indians of all communities live and work in the Gulf countries, with no preference being shown for any particular community.

Three tracks for India

The ongoing competition and conflicts in West Asia have re-affirmed the need for a new and robust approach to promote regional security. The US, wounded badly by its ill-conceived military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, has little appetite for a major role to address regional contentions; it also lost most of its credibility with the principal regional players. It is in this situation that India can play a role to promote regional stability that embraces Israel.

At the outset, it is important to note that Prime Minister Netanyahu, whatever his personal ties with Modi might be, is increasingly seen as a divisive and diminished figure not just in Israel but also in Washington. Today, he heads an extreme rightwing coalition that is at odds with large sections of its own nationals. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Israelis want peace in their neighbourhood and regret the divide that Netanyahu has caused with the US.

The depth and variety of India’s interests in West Asia do not countenance an either-or approach to the region where we can seek to build ties with one party at the expense of the other. Again, the turmoil in the region, in which most of the givens of the past are being challenged in an environment of sharp competition, makes it urgent that all-round stability be pursued vigorously.

Accordingly, Modi should structure his visit to Israel and Palestine as part of a broader engagement with West Asia. In Israel, he must convey the importance of peace and the just, equitable settlement of the Palestine issue. This should be followed by an engagement with the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where he should emphasise the central importance of all regional powers unitedly confronting the IS. And then, in Iran, he should affirm the abiding significance of our strategic ties.

Modi will need to go beyond rhetoric if his interactions are have to lasting value. There is need for a proactive role by India to mobilise those who share our concerns relating to West Asian security. We need to put in place platforms for dialogue and development of confidence-building measures among the nations living in fear, animosity and distrust. In regional security lies India’s and Asia’s long term interest: sab deshon ke saath, sabka vikas.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.