When Narendra Modi ascended to power in 2014 with a thumping victory, there were apprehensions about his aggressive attitude toward Pakistan. By extension, India’s relations with the Arab world, which has historically stood by Pakistan, were also at stake. As it turned out, Modi’s personal rapport with the Gulf monarchs has far outperformed expectations – and so has his proactive “Look West” policy aimed at boosting ties to the Middle East. Modi’s “Look West” policy is a break with his party’s past and has electoral dividends in India, where Hindu-Muslim tensions run high.
The Structural Shift With “Look West”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), like its predecessor Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), has never viewed the Middle East as India’s friend. Their primary discontent toward the Arab world was its soft spot for Pakistan. Balraj Madhok, a hardline ideologue who served as BJS president from 1966-67, believed that 12 out of the 13 Arab countries were inimical to India, save for the UAR (now Egypt). Hence, according to Madhok, India should treat them as “enemies.” Dindayal Upadhyay, another influential party president, believed that Indira Gandhi’s cozy relations with the Arab world were “not in Indian interest.” Considering the political pedigree of the BJP, any leader’s strong camaraderie with his Middle Eastern counterparts was highly inconceivable.
The BJP has also historically resented nations coming together under the banner of Islamic cooperation. When the government of India sought an invitation from the organizers of the Islamic Conference in Rabat in 1969, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a then-parliamentarian who later led the BJP government, opposed the very idea of sending an official delegation to Rabat. He accused the Indira Gandhi government of faltering on the “policy of secularism” by participating in a conference of Islamic countries. Not only did they oppose India’s participation in Islamic conferences, but the BJP also stood against the very idea of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. According to one of its foreign policy resolutions, adopted in 1992, “A cause of concern is the binding together of countries on the basis of religion. The Organization of Islamic Conference takes political decision on the grounds of religion… which promotes disharmony in international relations and as such needs to be discouraged.”
Fast-forward to 2019, however, and the BJP’s Modi has personally visited Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, seven out of the 13 countries once considered “enemies” by past party ideologues. Beyond this, he made official visits to Israel and Iran as well. It is unprecedented for an Indian prime minister to have officially visited so many countries in the Middle East; some of these countries had not been visited by an Indian premier in over three decades. To add to this, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj addressed the inaugural session of this year’s OIC as a “Guest of Honor.”
All these engagements by a Hindu nationalist government are perplexing for a distant observer. One can cite a host of Indian interests – a strong diaspora in the region, energy needs, bilateral trade, checkmating Pakistan, higher recognition on the world stage, etc. – to explain the Modi administration’s behavior; nonetheless, the list remains incomplete without including domestic interests. A shrewd politician, Modi has one eye continually on the Indian electorate, whom he needs to face at the end of his tenure.
In a society like India that is deeply divided along religious lines, Modi has to address the psychological needs of his Hindu nationalist base as well as pacify the minority Muslim voters, who are disquieted by anti-Muslim rhetoric from some of his party leaders. As it turns out, the fruits of his administration’s “Look West” policy are proving handy in both these daunting tasks.
Among the many awards conferred upon Modi, the highest civilian awards from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Palestine, and the UAE are suggestive of Modi’s wider recognition in the Islamic world to his domestic voters. Moreover, a BJP minister speaking at a platform like the OIC on behalf of the world’s second largest Muslim population is an act of political messaging to the community that has remained farthest from the BJP. While the mainstream media continue to highlight the rift between the BJP and Muslims, the ordinary Muslim voter is surprisingly turning toward Modi. According to Professor Hilal Ahmed of CSDS, a leading polling agency, only 6 percent of Indian Muslims voted for the BJP before 2014. That rose to around 9 percent in the 2014 elections and has now moved to a surprising 14 percent post-2014.
Meanwhile, one of the most significant achievements of Modi’s personal diplomacy has been getting the UAE government’s permission for a traditional Hindu temple and generous donation of land by the rulers. This ornately hand-carved stone temple in Abu Dhabi is an exception for an Islamic country such as the UAE, which outlaws public propagation of other faiths. Since its inception in the 1980s, the BJP has always promised its Hindu nationalist base a grand temple in Ayodhya, revered as the birthplace of Lord Ram. Some close observers believe this is one of the core issues driving the rise of the BJP. Despite demolishing the disputed Babri Mosque in 1992, the BJP leaders have never been able to deliver on the promise of a grand temple in Ayodhya due to constitutional constraints. By facilitating the construction of a giant temple in the capital of an Islamic monarchy, instead, Modi has catered to the psychological needs of his “mandir constituency” that believes in establishing icons of India’s spiritual supremacy.
By pursuing a proactive Look West policy, Modi has as much to gain personally and electorally as India has to gain from economic and energy partnerships. The Middle Eastern states stand to gain equally from India’s labor, oil exports, and bilateral trade. It’s a classic win-win situation. If Modi triumphs again in the 2019 elections, it is highly likely he will continue to pursue “Look West” vigorously for both national and personal interests.
Chirayu Thakkar recently graduated from the Modern South Asian Studies program at the University of Oxford. He writes on the history, politics, and international relations of South Asia.