Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), shows his ink-marked finger to his supporters after casting his vote at a polling station during the seventh phase of India's general election in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad April 30, 2014.
Amit Dave / Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is perhaps an unlikely candidate to take the nation’s relationship with the Middle East into a new era. When first elected, he faced questions of whether he, a Hindu nationalist who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when the state saw India’s worst anti-Muslim riots since independence, could change the nation’s policy toward the Middle East for the better. These questions are all the more relevant, given that changing geopolitical currents are making the Middle East more strategically important to India than ever before. A relative decline in U.S. interest and involvement leaves room for other budding great powers to enter. Fortunately, Modi can use two trump cards that will have a greater impact than his domestic baggage, namely India’s image and diaspora.

DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL GAINS

India is driven by an acute self-awareness of its own history as one of the world's oldest and greatest civilizations. As a result, its desire to become a great power is at the forefront of New Delhi’s foreign policy. India's aspirations began under former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership of the third world, but by the 1990s, India was left wanting more. That was apparent during Modi’s visit to the United States, where he spoke about learning lessons from the United States to become a strong global power.

Increasing prosperity and reducing poverty are essential if India is to become a great power. For this, the Middle East has long played a key role. Trade between India and the region totaled around $187 billion in 2013–14, making the Middle East India’s biggest trading partner. The economies of India and many Middle Eastern countries are complementary. India is acutely energy thirsty and has labor to spare; many Middle Eastern states are in desperate need of labor and are more than happy to sell their energy output to regional and international partners. Today, the Gulf region alone hosts seven million Indians who contribute approximately $40 billion in remittances back to the country.

Modi even has a new catchphrase, “Link West,” that could potentially elevate the Middle East to the same priority level as Southeast Asia, for which India has a similar “Look East” approach. India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, visited Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this year. In the UAE, Swaraj sought to attract investment. In Bahrain, she attended an Indian diaspora engagement meeting. In Oman, she lauded the country’s pluralism. And Delhi hosted the visit of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani of Qatar, a country that supplies 86 percent of India’s liquefied natural gas and is an increasingly significant strategic player in the region. Discussions with al Thani focused on infrastructure and defense investment opportunities in India.

Delhi also hosted the India-Arab Cooperation Forum in November 2014, promoting existing Indo-Arab engagements and annual ministerial exchanges. In cooperation with the League of Arab States, Delhi held the fourth India-Arab Partnership Conference as part of an effort to elevate relations. Soon after his election, Modi organized the first session of the India-Arab League Media Symposium.

LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR

India's relations with the Middle East were, for many years, driven purely by economics. But now, new strategic factors are at play. If Modi seeks to make India a great power, he must identify and respond to these new elements. The Middle East (and particularly Gulf States) is located on the western edge of what India sees as its sphere of influence—the Indian Ocean. The nation has historic trade roots sweeping as far west as the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent and as far east as China and Indonesia. Not surprisingly, a recent poll found that 94 percent of Indians felt that India should have the most powerful navy in the Indian Ocean. With terrorism plaguing the region, India sees its interests as being in danger.

Narendra Modi Election Middle East Madison Square Garden
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at Madison Square Garden in New York, during his visit to the United States, September 28, 2014.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Furthermore, the relative decline of Washington’s interest, influence, and public support for Middle Eastern involvement creates room for other global powers. India has a rare opportunity to fill this gap. Gulf States that have relied on the United States as their guarantor of security and stability must now find other friends and supporters in addition to regional cooperation and boosting defense spending (SIPRI). India offers a unique value proposition to Gulf States. It is a rising power that, unlike China and Russia, is viewed as less of a threat than Washington. India as seen as an unbiased regional arbiter—one not easily swayed by political trade winds with a large diaspora throughout the Middle East.

Better ties with the Arab states could help India weaken Pakistan’s global influence, undermining the Pakistani claim for control of Kashmir. The Gulf Cooperation Council has already shifted away from Pakistani claims of its own relevance in the perpetual standoff against Iran for Middle Eastern hegemony, opening the doors for potentially stronger ties with India. For its part, Pakistan has also declined Saudi Arabia’s request for troops in Yemen. India is better poised than ever to ingratiate itself further with Middle Eastern states. India’s fight against its own jihadists would also benefit tactically and image-wise from cooperation with Arab states.

To be sure, India faces heavy competition in the Middle East. With the United States less involved in future, China, too, has more space to enter the region’s affairs. Beijing wants to secure its own energy future. China’s increasing strategic ties with the Middle East will be turning heads in New Delhi. India has arguably greater dependence on Gulf States than China does, due to its reliance on both energy and remittances from the region.

India’s relations with countries in the region are relatively stable. Delhi rarely reacts to major world events through military threat or sanctions, in keeping with principles of tolerance and non-interference it has sought to adhere to since independence. Modi’s planned visit to Israel, bringing relations out of the closet, has not led to a rebuke by opposing powers. Modi may also have realized that some Middle Eastern governments are beginning to see Iran as a bigger immediate concern than Israel.

MODI’S BAGGAGE

India’s geostrategy in the Middle East is complicated by Modi’s history with India’s Muslim population. The prime minister cut his political teeth in the grassroots Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a controversial religious volunteer organization with a history of fractious relations with Muslims and Christians. As the as the chief minister of Gujarat during riots in which 1,000–2,000 citizens died, most of them Muslim, Modi was accused of having aides who called a strike inciting violence, failed to stop it, failed to punish the perpetrators, and did little to console Muslims in the aftermath. Modi then ran a successful state election campaign benefitting from Islamophobic rhetoric.

Narendra Modi Election Middle East Pakistan
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif walks past his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (foreground) during the opening session of 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu November 26, 2014.
Narendra Shrestha / Reuters
Although these stains can never be completely erased, they will not necessarily sabotage India’s agenda in the Middle East. India’s domestic strife makes little news in the Middle East, a region that is particularly inward looking. Furthermore, there is a general disconnect between the world of domestic, values-driven policy, and the cold calculus of international relations. Strong mutual interests between India and its Middle Eastern neighbors  will likely trump Muslim countries’ distaste for Modi’s pockmarked past. What's more, Modi’s attempts to remake his image should help him abroad. Although he will still need his nationalistic base for grassroots campaigning at election time, it is unlikely that RSS activists will abandon him because of his pursuit of Middle Eastern relations, as their interest lies in the nation’s affairs with Pakistan.

TRUMP CARDS

Global power is shifting eastward, and India is poised to expand its strategic ties with the Middle East. Modi can take advantage of his position as the prime minister of a culturally rich country, one known for pluralism, tolerance, and nonviolence. India is an attractive, benign partner for not only Arab states but also for Iran and Israel. By staying true to its values and showing little aggression outside of matters with its rival Pakistan, India has invested in its soft power capital. Through abstaining from tangling itself in Middle Eastern conflicts, India has established itself as an impartial actor.

Similarly, Modi can do what he has done successfully in the West and leverage the image and influence of India’s diaspora in the region. Indian migrants make up pluralities in some Gulf states, and in some cases, outnumber the local populations.

Building on these advantages, Modi can increase defense cooperation and agreements throughout the Middle East. There are small but positive signs that he will, such as the appointment of an Indian defense attaché in Qatar. But Delhi can do more. India must follow China’s lead in signaling the importance of the region. Beijing has made it abundantly clear to Qatar that the nation is strategically important for China. Modi must not be coy when it comes to expressing how important similar—if not stronger—relationships are for India.

Delhi should adopt a long-term vision that targets countries and actors, such as Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, that are most important for India’s strategic ascendance. There should be better coordination of economic and strategic interests. Where Indian companies’ success in foreign markets means significant strategic benefits, the state should provide more support. Much of this requires a larger Foreign Service, and the government must be willing to invest the small sums needed.

If India is to seriously enter the Middle Eastern theatre of the global great game, Modi must come up with a more strategic plan. Although he may be an unlikely candidate to forge ties with the Muslim world, if Modi can harnesses the geopolitical currents and build on India’s advantages, the country could become a major strategic power in the Middle East.

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