K C Singh | After Gulf blowback, do a rethink, save India image

Rivalry between Iran and the GCC Arabs complicates India\'s balancing act

When BJP spokespersons made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammad and his wife Aisha during a heated television debate it did not elicit any popular outrage in India or abroad. After all, Islamophobia had been romping through the television studios for years unchecked.

Putting the foreign policy of a nation in a separate silo and believing that domestic politics could be insulated from it was a fool’s errand. On June 5, when India’s vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu was Qatar on an official visit, the storm finally broke.

Qatar’s relations with its co-members of the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — had soured over their allegation of Qatar supporting the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Adding to their irritation was the role of the Qatar-owned television channel Al Jazeera in raising sensitive issues that excited the street in the Arab world. The Abraham Accords normalising Israel’s relations with some GCC nations while Israel was repressing the Palestinians kept the GCC nations on edge. Qatar took the lead on an issue that had resonated amongst the Muslim masses.

Thus, Qatar chose to summon the Indian ambassador to lodge its protest as India’s vice-president was still in that country. Normally, nations wait until the dignitary has departed before such action. Kuwait and Iran also jumped in the same day. Kuwait is in the middle of a domestic political crisis as the government resigned, a third time in a year, in early April.

The Kuwaiti Parliament had been seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al Hamad Al Sabah on corruption charges. In such a surcharged atmosphere, joining the clamour against India was a good distraction. Iran in any case, as the largest Shia nation, vies for the leadership of the Ummah, or believers in Islam, cutting across national borders.

Popular dissent followed, with calls for the boycott of Indian products. Even Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal nurturing of relations with the two Mohammeds, could not be outliers. Soon, 15 Islamic nations joined the official condemnation of the BJP spokespersons, including Indonesia, the most populous Islamic nation. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference also joined the condemnation. Therefore, the BJP had little wiggle room left. Nupur Sharma, nurtured from her university days as a future star in the BJP firmament, was suspended, while the less important Naveen Kumar Jindal was expelled from the party.

The ramifications are now playing out domestically. Friday prayers traditionally provide a ready gathering for protests. An insult to the Prophet was an issue that required little incitement. The community had already borne repeated pinpricks since before the Uttar Pradesh election. The Gyanvapi Masjid issue, unfortunately not red-flagged by the Supreme Court, opened a new friction point in inter-faith relations. Recogn-ising its destabilising potential, even RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had urged that “shivlings” should not be searched for at random. The widespread rioting indicates popular angst, though some degree of social media incitement also cannot be ruled out.

While the domestic churn may persist for some time, one factor is clear. New guidelines to the BJP spokespersons to not target the icons and core beliefs of any religion, especially Islam, shows there is some rethink at the highest levels. The blowback from the Gulf indicated that whatever the equation between the Gulf rulers and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when divisive Indian debate crosses the red lines on religion then these rulers cannot ignore the popular resentment.

Interestingly, the BJP itself is getting attacked by supporters of Nupur Sharma for bowing to foreign pressure. The dividing line between using Islamophobia for consolidating majority community’s votes and not offending friends abroad is a very thin one.

India had already been fending off criticism from Western sources, particularly the United States. Recently, US secretary of state Antony Blinken had highlighted the “rising attacks on people and places of worship”. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s strategy has been to not engage or answer specific charges but to deflect it by generalising the debate and levelling counter-charges. But what happened in the Islamic nations caught the BJP and the Modi government off-guard. The PM was silent and Mr Jaishankar was in Prague, where he had once served as the ambassador, and remained mum.

Action was quickly taken against the two loudmouths, designating them as “fringe” elements and reiterating that the BJP respected all religions. Meanwhile, home minister Amit Shah was busy giving homilies on history writing, implying a Mughal bias by past historians. But various dangers still lurk. One, Al Qaeda Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has never gained much traction in India. When I was the coordinator for counter-terrorism at the external affairs ministry, a common query of Western interlocutors was why the Indian Muslim population did not get radicalised. Those joining Al Qaeda were in low two digits. The answer we gave was that it was because Indian Muslims has legal avenues to seek relief. The AQIS threat on June 6 of suicide attacks must now be taken seriously.

Two, despite the resumption of contact with the Taliban government it must be noted that they lack the desire or ability to control Al Qaeda and affiliates like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. With Kashmir back on the boil, their recruitment field in India can get broadened if Muslim ire is not cooled politically. Bulldozers do not work against someone who has crossed over to jihad.

Three, although for the time being all nations, including Iran, whose foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited India amid the brouhaha, have dropped the issue for now, it can resurge if the Indian State’s heavy hand causes a violent outcome. The BJP may calculate that this confrontation helps electorally, but they must think of the Indian diaspora that is eight to nine million strong in the GCC nations, nearly $90 billion in annual trade and 40 per cent of India’s oil and gas supplies from the region. Also, not be scoffed at are the huge remittances that help balance the overall trade deficit.

What complicates the Indian balancing act are rivalries between Iran and the GCC Arabs, intra-Sunni conflicts and the US-Russia/China standoff. The last thing that India wants is for the United States to lose interest in an inward-looking and minority-bashing India or the Saudis and Emiratis to switch sides, realising India is unwilling to contain Iran.

Prime Minister Modi’s popularity is largely intact, and he really needs no new props to win in 2024. But by not discarding blunt instruments he may harm India’s standing abroad and in turn his own image.

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