Asia Scope

India Plays Catch-up on Middle East

An interesting piece in The Hindu newspaper this week about the perils of tying your policy toward a country (in this case India toward Iran) too closely to a close ally (the United States).

The writer argues that India should have seen what it describes as a thaw coming (though it’s perhaps a little early to call it that), and that events have left it diplomatically flat-footed:

‘India needs to prepare a frank estimation of its own insipid regional policies with regard to Iran. Clearly, it has been a policy disaster of stupendous proportions that the UPA government allowed the US (and Israel) to dictate the tempo of India-Iran relationship. Whereas most countries foresaw a US-Iran thaw and readied for it, the Indian establishment buried its head in the sand. Belying all logic, India stopped supplying petroleum products to Iran a few months ago, anticipating a “tightening” of US sanctions on Tehran. (China, of course, stepped in to meet Iran’s needs.)’

Relations between India and the Middle East are generally under-reported in Western media, so with our India correspondent Madhav Nalapat travelling to Qatar for a few days this week, I asked him, basically, how things stand.

Interestingly, he says that warming ties with the US have had what he describes as a ‘spinoff of closer ties with the Gulf sheikhdoms,’ and he added that ties between India and the region were multiplying, with India having joined the US and the EU in being a strategic partner of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

He says this shift has come after years of drift in relations, and I’ll quote at length here from his email as I think it’s good to put some of these issues in context:

‘Throughout the five decades that spanned the period since the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the normalisation of ties between Egypt and Israel, India was an outlier in the Gulf, so far as official contacts were concerned. The indifference of the ruling families there to a country that once had been their closest partner was matched by a similar attitude on the Indian side, which saw the sheikhdoms as anachronisms.

‘Indeed, India was the only major non-Communist country to assist the PLO since the 1950s in the setting up of a Palestinian state, even allowing a full-fledged diplomatic mission to be set up in Delhi. Interestingly, as soon as he got western (and Mideast) partners after the 1992 handshake with Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat dumped India within months and thereafter adopted the western position on Kashmir, which in effect was that the state ought to go to Pakistan. Such fickle behaviour helped nudge then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao into allowing Israel to open an embassy in Delhi in 1992, and for setting up an Indian mission in Tel Aviv–forty-two years after the Jewish state had been officially recognized by India in 1950.’