West Asia is currently at the confluence of the most decisive developments of our times. Some of the world's most complex problems are insecurely balanced in this region, which include the Palestinian conflict, the tragedy of Iraq, and the terrorization by radical religious movements and other non-state actors. With the elections over in Iraq and Palestine, the time has come for India to decide what is in our national interests in West Asia.
The voter turnout in Palestine and Iraqi elections surprised the world, underlining the reality that apart from Bush and Blair, who had direct interest in the region, the entire world was concerned the situation was getting into a mess from which the world economy and stability could suffer. The only hope left was that the elections would mark the moment where the injection of democracy would transform this situation, like the emergence of democracy in Malaysia and Turkey the within Islamic world.
The recently concluded Presidential elections on 9 January 2005 raised high hopes in the Arab community in Israel. The death of Arafat and subsequent election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as President of the Palestinian Authority by securing a comprehensive victory over his opponent Mustafa Bargoti, has opened up a welcome passage for those who see Abbas as a moderate leader who can bring peace to the region. This has created a high level of optimism, but cast greater responsibility on the new incumbent. However, his critics say that "Abbas has eliminated the political term thawabet" (immovable issues, such as the right of return and the status of Jerusalem), reasoning that politics can't be frozen and one must be flexible. So, there will be interesting political developments that would decide the future of Palestine.
At the same time, Iraq's election on 30 January 2005 marks an important step on the road to bring peace to the country, but whether it is a turning point remains to be seen. The Electoral Commission announced that out of 8.45 million registered voters, the Shia's United Iraqi Alliance secured 48% of the vote, followed by Kurdish alliance, which secured 25% share. Sunni Arab turn out was low and it is set to have only around 5 seats. Next step is to constitute a 275 member National Assembly that must agree on a president and two vice-presidents by a 2/3 majority. The Transitional National Assembly election was conducted according to a closed-list proportional-representation system with the entire country considered as a single electoral district and expected to compose at least 25 percent women. According to an expert, this political process "will culminate in a new constitution by October and a fully constitutional government by the end of the year". But if in case, the Sunni Arabs are largely shut out of government, they could still "potentially veto the new Iraqi constitution due to be written this year, causing political deadlock."
Implications for India
1. The 'exit strategy' deliberated on by the US and Britain suggests that elections are not just critical to Palestinians and Iraqis. India too has a stake in the unfolding situation and has a wide range of responsibilities if it claims to a permanent seat at the Security Council.
2. India, like Norway, could prop up its diplomatic resources to have a niche for itself in the eyes of international community. The appointment of Chinmaya Gharekhan as Special Envoy for West Asia and the Middle East Peace Process is evidence of India's strategic move.
3. India is already exploring several options to expand its energy security, both in terms of products and suppliers. There is also ample potential for India to evolve broader long-term economic relations with the region. As Manmohan Singh said, "this could include expanding our contacts with the Gulf Cooperation Council into an enduring institutional relationship."
4. Given India's emergence as a safe destination for foreign direct investment and the presence of several million of our NRIs, India must pursue a proactive strategy of seeking investments from West Asia.
5. India should do all it can, as Iraq stabilizes, to help the return of normalcy and in the task of reconstruction that lies ahead. At the same time, it should guard against any major disruptive developments to its national security and interests caused by religious fundamentalist forces. As K. Subrahmanyam remarks, "this calls for vigorous proactive diplomacy, involving the US, the EU, Russia and the West Asian countries - a kind of diplomacy that India has not been used to."