For Modi, Courting the Arab World Begins With India’s Muslims

India’s tricky regional balance of power isn’t made any easier by sectarian tensions.

Indian Muslims carry Indian flags during a protest against a new citizenship law, in Bengaluru on Jan. 20, 2020.
Indian Muslims carry Indian flags during a protest against a new citizenship law, in Bengaluru on Jan. 20, 2020. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the centenary of Aligarh Muslim University, a centrally administered university a few hours’ drive southeast of the capital, Delhi. Like so many important events these days, the celebrations were held online, but Modi’s speech was closely watched. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long had fraught relations with the country’s 200 million Muslims, with the party being accused of perpetuating an anti-Muslim climate of hate with its open embrace of sectarian politics. Modi himself has struggled to convince Muslims that he governs for all Indians, regardless of creed.

In the speech, Modi emphasized that his government was committed to religious non-discrimination. He also highlighted selected statistics showing improvements in education attainment for Muslim girls. But he also called on Muslim students to help build India’s international “soft power” by carrying the “best of India” abroad. Modi’s plea was likely tied to his recent diplomatic offensive to repair ties with the Muslim world—or at least ensure they aren’t damaged by perceptions that his government is not only Hindu nationalist, but anti-Islamic.

Keeping Muslim-majority countries onside is crucial for India’s foreign policy. Incredibly, Delhi seeks to do so while simultaneously deepening defense ties with Israel. What’s more, India has succeeded in developing close relations with Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates while cooperating on infrastructure development with their archrival, Iran. That’s quite a juggling act—and one that seems to fly in the face of received wisdom on international relations.

Western analysts argue over whether today’s world is unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar, but they always see the United States as one of the poles, and model other countries in relation to it. That may work well enough at a global level. But at the regional level, international systems can be much more complicated. The tangle of relations connecting South Asia and the Middle East is one such regional system—and it may be better understood using indigenous Indian international relations theories than Western global ones.
India has long sought a deeper relationship with the Arab world, only to see Pakistan counter Indian realpolitik with Sunni Muslim religious solidarity.

In 1919, the pioneering Bengali social scientist Benoy Kumar Sarkar published a fascinating article in the American Political Science Review on the “Hindu Theory of International Relations.” Drawing on the Mahabharata and other classical Sanskrit texts, he divided foreign countries into three types: the ari (enemy), the madhyama (mediatory, entangled with both the country and the enemy), and the udaseena (indifferent, free to throw their weight behind either). Taken together, the entire system is a mandala, or circle, of states.

Applying Sarkar’s mandala theory to India’s western border, Pakistan is the perennial ari, Iran is the crucial madhyama, and the Gulf Arab states are the udaseena that hold the ultimate balance of power.

India has been able to maintain a working relationship with Iran despite U.S. sanctions, even obtaining a sanctions exemption from the Trump administration for helping Iran develop port and railway infrastructure in Chabahar. Iran is not a close Indian ally, but mandala theory suggests that it doesn’t have to be. In the mandala system, it is enough for the madhyama, Iran, to put constant pressure on the ari, Pakistan. With Pakistan accused of supporting separatist terrorism in Iran’s southwestern Baluchistan province, the pressure from Tehran is certainly on.

Its madhyama in place, India need only line up its broader udaseena, the regional powers that could support either side. For this, India has turned to the Gulf Arab troika of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which are themselves closely connected by religious, historical, and security ties. Until the early 2000s, these countries mainly saw India as a source of cheap labor for domestic services and construction sites. India’s rapid economic growth since the turn of the millennium, however, has dramatically changed these calculations.
The Saudis and their Gulf allies may have concluded that their alliance with Pakistan was more trouble than it was worth.

Still, a relationship based on oil exports and investment opportunities isn’t enough to complete India’s mandala. India has long sought a deeper security relationship with the Arab world, only to see Pakistan counter Indian realpolitik with Sunni Muslim religious solidarity. Pakistan successfully stymied India’s efforts to join the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1969, and was closely involved in the development of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces. It even sent troops to help defend Saudi Arabia against Iran in 1979 and Iraq in 1991.

The greatest sign of deep cooperation between Pakistan and the Sunni Muslim states of the Persian Gulf may have been the alleged Saudi support for Pakistan’s nuclear program. Academics are divided about the importance and even the reality of Saudi financing, but the idea that Pakistan might develop a supranational so-called Islamic bomb, or Muslim bomb, to counter Indian and Israeli nuclear weapons percolated widely from the late 1970s onward. Muslims worldwide cheered when Pakistan finally detonated its first bomb in 1998.

It’s not clear exactly how India succeeded in flipping Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states from staunch supporters of Pakistan into India-leaning udaseena. As late as 2016, serious analysts could still argue that “Pakistan will only continue to grow as an important partner for Saudi Arabia.” The tipping point seems to have been the joint Saudi-Emirati intervention in Yemen, launched in 2015. Saudi Arabia formally requested Pakistani “aircraft, warships, and soldiers” for the war, only to be publicly rebuffed.

At that point, the Saudis and their Gulf allies may have concluded that their alliance with Pakistan was more trouble than it was worth. By the mid-2010s, the military services of the Gulf Arab states possessed much more sophisticated equipment than their Pakistani counterparts, and they no longer needed Pakistan for training or technical assistance. India, by contrast, offered not only economic opportunities, but a strong preference for status-quo stability. Its increasing naval and air presence in the Arabian Sea may have been the stick to complement the carrots.
Anything Modi can do to win Indian Muslims’ trust will make it easier for the Gulf Arab states to publicly cooperate with India.

Pakistan thought it held a trump card in Indian Kashmir, historically India’s only Muslim-majority state. Yet when India revoked Kashmir’s special status in August 2019 and placed it under central administration as a union territory, Pakistan sought a condemnation from other Muslim countries and the OIC—to no avail. Despite the Modi government’s heavy-handed use of repressive tactics in Kashmir as a prophylactic against potential violence, official criticism from Muslim-majority states has been muted.

It seems the only thing India has to worry about as it seeks closer ties with its Arab udaseena is the contentedness of its own Muslim-minority citizens. Though it ignored Pakistani pleas over the status of Kashmir, in 2020 the OIC lashed out at India on 11 separate issues relating to the rights of Indian Muslims. Five of these criticisms were related to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which offers a pathway to citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from neighboring Muslim-majority countries. The CAA sparked mass protests all across India, including a violent confrontation between police and students at the Aligarh Muslim University.

In his centenary speech at the university, Modi appealed to Aligarh’s Muslim students to accept that “whatever religion you are born in, it is important to blend one’s aspirations with national goals.” He asked them to put aside politics “for the betterment of the country.” It is probably no coincidence that Modi’s speech came one day after his home minister and right-hand man, Amit Shah, announced a moratorium on enforcement of the CAA until after the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

Modi, Shah, and the BJP certainly don’t expect to win Muslim votes by appealing to youthful patriotism and soft-pedaling the CAA. But they do hope to moderate the outright hostility that many Indian Muslims feel toward the BJP. Anything Modi can do to win Indian Muslims’ trust, control the more aggressively sectarian elements of his party, and tamp down Muslim protests against the government will make it easier for the Gulf Arab states to publicly cooperate with Modi’s India. That cooperation has progressed from wary flirtation to official exchanges and joint exercises. India’s state-to-state relationships with its Gulf Arab neighbors are flourishing. But their final success will depend on Modi’s handling of government-to-citizen relationships at home.

Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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