Much of India’s foreign policy, even today, is based on the fundamentals laid down by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. India’s place in the world and the policies that have shaped its global personality as a nation are based on Nehru’s ideals, which were sacrosanct until the Indo-China war of 1962 offered a perspective based on realism, rather than idealism.
Nehru was genuinely fond of driving India’s foreign policy, just like Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi have been. However, Nehru’s play in extending India’s hand of friendship and cooperation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf (more commonly known in India as West Asia) was a masterstroke, the benefits of which India reaps in the region even today.
India’s influence post-independence in the region started with the rapport that Nehru ended up building with the former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. By 1953, eminent Indian diplomat V. K. Krishna Menon had already started to market the idea of a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the United Nations. Nehru, Gamel, and others from Asia and Europe later championed the NAM, at the time a revolution, but now an idea well past its expiry date.
Nehru made Cairo a single-point policy in West Asia, though which New Delhi over the years developed exposure to the various intricacies of the region. Even though trade between Egypt and India never flourished to the levels that both Nasser and Nehru had hoped for, the Nehru-Nasser dynamic did lay much of the groundwork for India’s policy of strategically backing Arab states. Even after Nasser died in 1970, India supported his successor President Anwar Sadat’s regime as it partnered with Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and took on the Israelis in the October War (Yom Kippur War).
Continuing the trend, India also maintained good relations with Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime in Damascus. These ties were retained when his son, Bashar al-Assad, took over the presidency of Syria in 2000. India has maintained a sly preference for the Assad regime even during the current Syrian Civil War, echoing the Russian line of supporting only an amicable solution via talks. In addition to taking part in the Geneva II talks, New Delhi sent a business delegation to Syria last May to bolster trade ties.
India’s traditional rules of engagement with West Asia have only expanded in the decades following Nehru. This has been mostly positive for India, barring some instances that may be called blunders, such as India’s stance on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the first Gulf War, when it became the only country to shift its High Commission from Kuwait to Basra in Iraq after Saddam invaded.
Fast-forward to the new millennia, and India’s political relationship with West Asian and Persian Gulf states is more streamlined, clear and concise. While much of the diplomatic attention has focused on the 7 million Indians working in the region, and the remittances they send back home, as well as on the oil trade, bilateral relations are also becoming more serious on the security front.
India already has two main working security understandings in the region, namely with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While details of India’s strategic understanding with Riyadh remain largely unknown, New Delhi signed an expansive defense agreement with Doha in 2008, thought to be a “one of a kind,” not signed with any other country since. Under the agreement, New Delhi has committed to protect Qatar’s assets and interests from external threats.
The proactive policy towards West Asia has continued under the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has giving Indian foreign policy in general a much needed boost.
The timing is good, as West Asia is now becoming more important for India, particularly in terms of security. The ongoing crisis surrounding the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has driven recent Indian engagement. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Doha last month to hold talks with the Qatari leadership.
India has leveraged its special understanding with Qatar in Iraq and reportedly even in Afghanistan. New Delhi had sought help of the influential Qatari state to locate 39 missing construction workers who have been taken hostage by ISIS. Meanwhile, a recent report also credited Doha for playing the role of mediator in the release of Indian citizen Father Alexis Prem Kumar, who was abducted by the Taliban eight months ago in Afghanistan’s Herat province where he had been helping to educate refugee children.
Qatar, a small Gulf country renowned for its wealth and for punching politically above its weight in the region, has become a formidable ally for India. Doha has some control over crucial entities in the region, including those fighting ISIS, such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. Qatar is now reportedly moving to dismantle Nusra’s relations with al-Qaeda (although denied by Nusra’s second in command, Abu Mariya), which may give Doha more ground influence in the fragile realpolitik taking place in Iraq and Syria. This offers context on the role Doha can play in India’s worries relating to the launch of al-Qaeda in South Asia (AQSA) in September last year, as announced by the terror organization’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
India is now looking to form more bilateral security arrangements with its friends in the region. After Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has become the latest country to enter into negotiations with New Delhi on a memorandum of understanding that will cover defense cooperation between the two countries. Delhi and Manama have always shared close ties, with some even suggesting that Bahrain is India’s closest ally in the region. Other states such as the UAE are also strengthening ties with India; the fact that Dubai deported Indian mujahideen leaders to India in 2013 showcased growing West Asian cooperation on security issues with India.
With organizations such as ISIS able to influence people across borders and continents using online propaganda, West Asia will remain a diplomatic focus for India.
Kabir Taneja is a journalist covering Indian foreign affairs and energy sector for The Sunday Guardian, The New York Times (India Ink), Tehelka, The Indian Republic and others. He is also a Scholar at The Takshashila Institution.