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#4898, 14 July 2015

Spotlight West Asia

A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen (North) and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India

Since the beginning of 2011, a blood-soaked West Asia has been constantly enveloped by increasing deaths, destruction, devastation and displacement. The region is going through the worst ever period in its history with little prospects of any improvement in the situation in the near future.

The Gulf region is India’s preeminent oil supplier, leading trade partner, and 8 million Indians live and work there, sending annual remittances worth $40 billion to India. No major power is impacted either positively or negatively by what happens in the Gulf region as much as India does. There has been much adverse comment that India, a very significant global power, situated next door to the region, an ardent aspirant to be on the global high table, and despite having this particularly significant strategic stake in the stability of the Gulf region, seems to be completely uninvolved; even completely disinterested. Should India get involved more actively?
India’s past interaction with West Asia has been guided by the following considerations: 

a. India has had a consciously low-key, non-intrusive policy approach to the Arab world, guided preeminently by considerations of pragmatism and mutual benefit.
b. No interference in the internal affairs of other countries has been a cardinal principle of Indian diplomacy.
c. Independent India has never gotten intrusively involved in wars between other countries.
d. India has been consistently opposed to military interventions to solve political problems.
e. Though India is the world’s largest democracy and takes pride in that fact, it does not consider that promoting any particular form of government in other countries is any business of New Delhi. India endeavors to maintain good relations with all countries and accepts ground realities as they are, irrespective of its own preferences. It is certainly not for outsiders to decide what constitutes legitimacy of the forms of government of West Asian countries.
f. India deliberately avoids making partisan comments in relation to internal situations in countries experiencing domestic turmoil and continues its interaction with the regimes of the day in these countries, while keeping possibilities of discreet lines of communication with select influential groups, including those in the opposition.
g. India fully respects the right of any country in the region to have whatever relationship it wishes to have with any other country.
h. India does not take sides in intra-regional disputes except supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. India’s relationships with countries of the Gulf region and Israel started growing substantively since the early nineties and have been blossoming in parallel particularly since the advent of the new millennium, even as India’s commitment to the Palestinian cause has remained robust.

This approach has paid dividends and has contributed to India’s excellent relations with all countries of the Gulf region and Israel simultaneously. This is India’s most spectacular foreign policy success. Therefore there is no reason whatsoever to change it.

Furthermore, in the context of the current situation in West Asia, the reality and indisputable fact is that anything that India says or does will not even marginally influence the actions of any individual player or outcomes on the ground. Policy should always be consciously tempered by a mature recognition of the limits of one’s capabilities and influence at any given point of time. The situation is exceedingly fluid and uncertain. There has been a massive proliferation of violent, irresponsible and irrational non-state actors and India’s becoming intrusively involved could provoke them to harm Indian interests; and in particular to attack the very large Indian community in the region. With 180 million-strong Muslim population, India has to be very careful about potential blowbacks. India has to do everything it can to avoid such possibilities.

Therefore, reticence or so called policy passivity in a particularly unpredictably changing environment does not reflect an absence of decision making, an abdication of ‘leadership’, or of being a ‘freeloader’. It is simply being prudent.

India, like all other countries, must give top priority to its own national interests. India should continue on this path, undeterred by ideologically motivated domestic or international criticism.  

The current situation in West Asia clearly exhibits that predominantly military-oriented approaches to security are wrong, undesirable and unsustainable in the 21st century, particularly in as volatile a region as the Gulf. China, India, Japan and South Korea cumulatively already have a much larger energy and trade relationship with the Gulf region than the Western world and this is poised to grow exponentially in the decades ahead.

These four Asian countries should come together and strive to bring on board Saudi Arabia and Iran to discuss the promotion of a new security framework for the Gulf region, but quietly behind the scenes, focus on dialogue. This effort would represent the beginning of a new process and patient persistence would be required. Success will take much time. It is only in these contexts that India must become proactive. Encouragingly, under President Barack Obama, the US has moved dramatically towards negotiations in preference to knee-jerk military interventions to promote solutions to West Asia’s myriad problems; growing disenchantment between the US and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and the nuclear deal with Iran on the other are factors that provide an environment conducive to moving forward on this process. This should be considered as complementary to the newly emerging US approach and not anti-US in any way. 

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