NEW DELHI: Following “Act East” and an energetic Central Asia yatra, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preparing to plunge into West Asia and Gulf — a part of India’s neighborhood that many have accused him of neglecting.
By the end of the year, the Modi government will have engaged at the highest levels all the key players in the region. While there has been no articulation of any grand policy by the government, there are glimpses of a bigger game in play.
The kick-off will be with the UAE this weekend, when Modi becomes the first Indian PM to travel there in 34 years. The importance of the visit will be evident with some big announcements. Investment, terrorism and security will dominate the agenda, but Modi will make a special gesture by visiting the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi, which would be significant for many reasons.
This will be Modi’s first visit to an Arab power, but not the only one. Earlier this year, Modi received the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani who was on his first official visit to India. Later this year, Modi will visit Saudi Arabia, responding to an invitation by the Saudi king.
In September, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President will make his first visit to India, while Modi will be in Turkey in November for the G-20 summit.
Meanwhile, Modi has already indicated his special relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was the only leader he had met in New York last year. President Pranab Mukherjee will be in Tel Aviv in October, following high-level visits of the Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon and home minister Rajnath Singh to Israel.
The India-Israel relationship has been nurtured by successive governments, but Modi, after Vajpayee, is bringing it out of the closet.
Meanwhile, on Friday, PM will meet Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif who will brief the Indian government on the nuclear deal. India has pressed “restart” on the Iranian relationship with gusto as Iran emerged from international isolation. Nitin Gadkari was the first minister to visit Tehran earlier this year where he signed the Chahbahar agreement. He was followed quickly by NSA Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S Jaishankar. Modi himself met Iranian PM Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Ufa last month.
Modi’s government has been characteristically inarticulate about its engagement strategy, typically preferring the surprise touch with fait accompli announcements without talking about the larger intent. Defending this, however, a source in the government observed, “the lack of a strategic explanation should not be confused with the lack of a strategy”. But a list of the ‘engagements-in-waiting’ provide a glimpse of the strategy at work.
The importance of the Gulf and West Asia is evident — together it’s the source of the bulk of India’s energy imports and remittances besides being the home and work place for almost 7 million Indians in the region. The UAE is special in this respect, being India’s third largest trading partner, a logistics hub and almost $800 billion sovereign fund that India wants to attract as an investor in infrastructure. The UAE is also unique in being a second home for many wealthy Indians, but equally, the shared space for Indians and Pakistanis.
Across the region, as India’s equity has risen steadily in the past decade, Pakistan has lost ground despite the OIC continuing to make silly statements on Kashmir. This is important, because one of the reasons for India traditionally looking askance at engaging this region more deeply was the futility of the exercise when Pakistan was the flavour.
Pakistan’s deep ties with lethal and toxic Islamist forces is now as much of a concern as ISIS or Hezbollah. The countries of this region are now as concerned about Islamic radicalization as India, and New Delhi is looking for greater cooperation on this issue. Just the very fact that it can engage closely with the Saudis, Iranians and Israelis almost simultaneously gives India a strong strategic opening in this region.