Is India Getting Arabia Wrong?

I’m coming to believe that the best way to judge a nation’s response to the new Arab political order is whether it preferred the status quo or not. The status quo-preferring nations are not ideologically similar– Iran and Israel, India and Saudi Arabia – but on this they are all on the same side.

There aren’t that many governments who care for the unrest, but the forward-looking ones are at least going with the flow, trying to get leverage and grab opportunities from what’s happening. The Western governments are largely in this group. Some countries are openly embracing the change, after calculating they can win Arab hearts and minds. Here, Turkey is an obvious example.

Why does India, the world’s largest democracy, tend to see the world through a prism that is almost identical to that of, say, Israel?

Based on what I’m hearing, senior Indian foreign policy officials have erroneously judged the Arab uprisings as a product of Western machinations. This is clearly not the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. In Libya, intervention was decisive in tipping the balance.

In Egypt, the US’s main role was to tell the Egyptian military not to expect any support if they did a Tiananmen Square-style massacre. But it’s not clear the military would have shot its own people anyway.

This touches a deep Indian neocolonial chord regarding Western intervention in developing world affairs. But it ignores a liberal-left tradition in Indian foreign policy that respects and understands the idea of popular revolution.

The second prism through which India sees the uprisings is a Shia-Sunni prism. Even if this were true, the only country where there is such a sectarian divide is Syria. Of course, Iran is trying to keep Damascus from falling for fear of losing one of its few Arab allies.

New Delhi looks at its own large Shia and Sunni populations and says, “Not for us.”

Other than the fact that Indian Muslims have shown far less interest in pan-Islamic issues than the chattering classes think they have, this sectarian analysis is simply wrong.

Also, which I’ve written elsewhere, the Indian system believes, not incorrectly, that democracy in the Arab world will hand power to Islamicist groups. That is certainly happening. But so what?

India hasn’t made a clear distinction between radical and conservative Islam. And the latter is not necessarily an adversary for India or its worldview– n0t as long as they honour the idea of elections.

One retired diplomat argued recently that the secular states between Saudi fundamentalism and Iranian militancy were being knocked over. Why should a set of Muslim Brotherhood-ruled nations serve a similar purpose? They would not be Wahhabi and definitely not Shia.

Finally, the real unspoken fear of the Indian system: that all this hullabaloo will eventually make it to the Persian Gulf and wreck the Indian economy by strangling its primary external source of petrochemicals. As Shivshankar Menon, the government’s National Security Advisor, recently pointed out, for the emerging economies “energy will be the key and the Gulf will be critical to the rest of Asia’s growth.”

New Delhi is petrified about the consequences of a West vs Iran clash.

But, India won’t get directly involved in the Gulf. It will just grumble and gripe about short-sighted Westerners and neglect the economic reforms at home that would give India an even better buffer to West Asian volatility than any number of violent and repressive regimes.



Copyright © 2012 Hindustan Times.

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