Indian PM’s visit to West Asia: Time to craft a robust regional policy
By Girijesh Pant
West Asia despite huge economic stakes – energy, remittances, expat Indians and historical engagement has remained neglected area in the imagination of Indian foreign policy makers at least after Nehru. The present government is no exception. Having traveled all the continents and hosting Africa summit late in the year, the Indian PM has yet to finalize his visit to the region. About a month back, the South block did indicate the possibility of PM going Israel, recent reports are that President and the Prime minister are likely to travel to the region in near future. Though belated, these visits are expected to be more than reinforcement of bilateral relations. It is essential that at this juncture when the region is mired with huge uncertainties and possibilities, having direct bearing on Indian interest, the policy makers in South block take these visits as opportunity to formulate and spell out India’s West Asia policy.
The political and strategic configuration of West Asia is changing radically. It is even on the verge of redrawing the boundaries. In the emerging context, West Asia is dialectically getting fragmented and united. Its territorial construct along with polity and social, seemingly getting fractured. The non state formations are shaping the regional contours and new alignments are emerging specially after the prospects of Iran coming back to the mainstream. At the same time, a new sense of solidarity is emerging. The region is communicating, sharing and relating in terms of denial of dignity and deprivation of participation. However the manifestation of regional common has moved from street demonstration to the declaration of the Islamic State. The violent and sectarian profile of the ISIS, ironically is gaining empathetic and sympathetic popular hearing in the region and even across the globe. It is perceived as the only potent force to challenge the domination of West and miss-governance of the rulers in the region. It has hijacked the political Islam, transformed its character and made the region epicentre of terrorism. Many home grown groups in different part of the world are aligning with the violence from the region giving it trans national profile. It is this spill over from the region, which of late is becoming the defining premise of global engagement with the region. In fact, that the terms of engagements are increasingly determined by the extremist formations. President Obama has been forced to come back to Iraq and pressure is on for return of the US soldiers.
Indian policy towards the region cannot ignore these developments. It has to take guard that it is not drawn into conflict zone by default. The new challenge emanates from the prospects of conflict migrating, leading to escalation of internal vulnerability posed by radicalization of regional ethos. The possibility of ISIS attack on India reported by USA Today is a matter of serious concerns which demands that all efforts are made to contain its growing profile in the region itself. India cannot afford to wait and watch the spread of ISIS in West Asia and beyond. It is not something happening in a distant location, West Asia is its extended neighborhood besides Afghanistan and Pakistan too are vulnerable. Surely India does not have to press the panic button, but it has huge security stakes to ensure that the ISIS is decimated both physically and ideologically. More than former it is the latter that is argued, to be more dangerous and enduring. This requires a vision, a strategy and policy to execute it. It is precisely for this reason India can no more neglect but to have a robust policy on the region.
Surely West Asian identity cannot be framed in terms of terrorism alone. Also ISIS needs to be seen more than terrorist outfit. It is a political project to acquire power by evoking religious sentiment by appealing to Sunni Muslims of them being victimized, both by their rulers and others. It touches the sentiments because, conditions created by the external intervention and internal machination by ruling powers since the Skype-Picot agreement. In recent times, it was the US understanding to export democracy by regime change in Iraq that affected the regional power balance leading to proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Arab uprising further contributed to it. Thus objective and subjective conditions were created for the birth of ISIS and the same continue to ensure its longevity. The US strikes have very little impact on its containment on the contrary it is further alienating the people. It is now well recognized that ISIS is the product of systemic malaise. It requires comprehensive intervention from the regional players themselves. The outsiders can play only supportive role. How does India position itself?
The first requirement is that the two leading players Saudi Arabia and Iran get engaged in conversation. Apparently, with poor credibility both in Riyadh and Tehran, America, cannot be the interlocutor. Europe can fill this gap provided it has the will power. By playing leading role in nuclear deal with Iran, it has earned the stature but might as well be perceived as party to nuclear deal by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reportedly visited the two countries. However EU on its own might not evoke that leverage to earn the confidence of the two, Russia is another important player but Moscow’s move is likely to be seen as conceding strategic space by the west. China of late is seen as player of some significance in the region but on its own strength, it cannot and does not intend to bear the burden. However an Asian intervention could be a feasible proposition And India needs to consider an initiatives in this direction.
In addition to de-escalating the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the other areas to contain the space for ISIS is to resolve Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya by a plan that backs military moves along with dynamic political and strategic intervention yielding space for local forces to get engaged under a multilateral regional platform. Yemen can be rescued from sectarian competition by recognizing its plurality in government formation. Syria is more complex with multiple fault lines. It has to be reconstructed on a more federal platform with regional autonomies. It also needs accommodation of presently conflicting interest between President Assad, the opposition forces and the Kurds. The three will have to compromise to contribute collectively to co exist and to defeat ISIS and Al Qaida. This may sound tall but the existential threat from ISIS makes a strong case of uniting against a common enemy. Tactical move to promote one militant formation against other has failed. Obviously it requires conversation at global level with local agreeing to get mutually engaged.
In crafting West Asia policy India has to reassess some of the old assumption and take cognizance of new realities. While India welcomes return of Iran it cannot endorse its regional hegemonic aspiration. Though India finds strategic gains in promoting and consolidating its relation with Iran but its relations with Saudi Arabia is of equal importance. Similarly in view of dynamic changes in the region India has to reposition itself on Palestinian-Israel binary. It is ground reality that while the Palestinian issue remains unresolved, Israel has moved on to the point that conservative regimes from the Gulf are in conversation with it at track two level on matter of their perceived strategic interest. The open admission by Saudi Arabia and Israel on the platform of the Council on Foreign Relation that the two countries have been meeting and discussing on Iran clearly shows that within the regional power dynamics Israel has embedded it strategically. Interestingly writing in the op-ed page of the Israeli daily Haaretz ( dated 7th July 2014), the Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal imagines “ if I could get on a plane in Riyadh, fly directly to Jerusalem, get on a bus or taxi, go to the Dome of the Rock Mosque or the Al-Aqsa Mosque, perform the Friday prayers, and then visit the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.“ The press has been carrying stories of ‘security trade’ between UAE and Israel. The point is that in the changing context, most West Asian states see Palestinian issue more as instrument of legitimacy than a cause, hence though they provide material and moral support.
India’s interaction with Israel has moved multi fold both in volume and value. Israel is the second largest supplier of defense arsenal to India and the latter is the largest customer for Israel. Their engagement on the high end of value chain and research and development in fields like agriculture, water management, energy and intelligence sharing clearly demonstrates that on many accounts India-Israel relations have acquired strategic connotation. The reported meeting of Israeli and Saudi Arabian interlocutor on Indian soil reflects the confidence quotient that India enjoys with Israeli and Saudi policy makers.
In conceptualising, West Asia policy India has to visualize region both in short and medium term. Further it being India’s extended neighbor, India should be visible appropriately. Given the nature of relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia, perhaps time is not right to have high level visits to Tehran and Riyadh but it would be a good beginning if the visit to Israel is clubbed with countries like Oman, Tunisia and Turkey. All the three destinations could provide vital strategic insight in conceptualising India’s its regional policy. Oman despite being member of GCC is not part of Saudi Arabian war on Yemen. It has been interlocutor between Iran and USA on number of occasions. Its assessment on regional dynamics including ISIS would be more realistic because unlike other Gulf countries Oman distances itself with sectarian rivalries of the Islamists. India has much better strategic understanding with it . Tunisia is defining the Islamist polity in its own terms with a doctrine of plural inclusiveness. It is an illustration of people’s resurgence of democratic aspiration despite constant terrorist pressure. The experiment needs to be supported and the Indian PM’s visit will be a great gesture and message of the Indian imagination of West Asia. At this juncture of public discourse in the region, Indian experience of pluralism and democracy could be projected as soft power. Turkey after its 24th election has emerged much stronger as democratic polity. Turkey and India can play a creative role when the region is not sure of the Western credential. They can together work with Iran and Saudi Arabia to de escalate tension between them. At bilateral level India and Turkey as emerging economies have huge potential to harness. Both are continental economies with young population and vibrant entrepreneurial class driving their economies. Both have traveled through the path of neoliberal economy with its ramifications. They need to share their experience to provide an alternative political economy to save the region from facing the crisis of ideology leading to despair discontent and violence.
There is apprehension that in the absence of a rigorous assessment, the imperatives of circumstances might force India to subscribe to narrative which looks at terrorism exclusively in terms of military project. India along with other Asian countries need to recognize what Galtung said long back about the structural roots of violence. The Western understanding of the regional security imperatives have been in adequate if not flawed. The visit of PM Modi, could be made historical if it inspire the foreign office to script a much awaited West Asia Policy. It can no more remain a neglect constituency of Indian Foreign Policy by default. On the contrary if India intends to position itself as leading country in global affairs, as the Prime minister’s vision is, West Asia today provides ground for that creative engagement.
Girijesh Pant is former Dean School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former Vice Chancellor, Doon University India.