The visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia reflects the fact that India is trying to ensure oil supplies for its economy. However, Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is not just upsetting to Saudi rival Iran, but also old ally Pakistan.
In fact, the only way India can assuage Iran, and the USA Pakistan, is by showing all concerned that all are US allies, old or new, and that the visit does not represent a threat, but a reflection of recent change in relationships, which can be timed as occurring because of the collapse of the USSR.
In the Cold War paradigm of yesteryear, Saudi Arabia and India did not have all that much in common. After all, Saudi Arabia was firmly on the side of the USA, and India on that of the USSR. However, now that the USSR has collapsed, and India is an ally of the USA, especially after its civilian nuclear accord with it, the way has been paved for the two countries to come closer.
There is an old historical relationship, based on shipping across the Arabian Sea, between India’s western coast and the Arabian Peninsula. There is resonance in Modi being from Gujerat, with Gujerati vessels and mariners very active in the commerce, which brought spices from the East Indies to the Levantine Coast, from where they were sent on to Europe. More recently, the relationship’s uptick is indicated by the fact that this is the first visit by a non-Congress Indian PM. Previously, there had been visits by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1955), Indira Gandhi (1982) and Manmohan Singh (2010). Thus Modi’s visit would be the one after the smallest gap.
The visit also represents a prong of Modi’s strategy, whereby he visited the Gulf only last year. One of the primary interests that India has in the region is not just oil, but also its expatriate workforce. There are a large number of Indian expatriates in the Gulf, not just in the UAE, but also in Saudi Arabia. This is one point of divergence between Iran and Saudi Arabia for India: there is no significant Indian population in Iran.
However, India has been associated with Iran, even though it buys oil from both. The Iranian edge was supposed to be the sale of gas, and the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline was supposed to solve Indian energy problems, not Pakistani. Indeed, Pakistan was only brought on board this project because there is no other feasible route. The Indian desperation to avoid Pakistan was so great, that an undersea pipeline, connecting Iran and India directly, was actually contemplated, being rejected because it was technically too dicey.
However, just as Pakistan finds itself forced to carry out a balancing act between Saudi Arabia and Iran, so does India. Albeit for different reasons, India does too. However, in both relationships, India finds it faces a large Pakistan-sized fly. Pakistan does not view any improvement in relations of either Iran or Saudi Arabia with India merely as a game of one-upmanship, but as an existential threat. Iran helped it materially in its 1965 War with India, while Saudi Arabia has prevented it from economic collapse on more than one occasion. The view that India wants Pakistan’s destruction gained strength after the Modi government showed the sort of Hindu chauvinism never seen since Partition, and harking back to the 1937-9 Congress Ministries, and that view sees both the Modi overtures to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf as more than merely meant to promote Indian interests.
Indeed, on the face of it, Modi, not just the Prime Minister of one of the few Hindu-majority states of the world, but the Prime Minister nominated by a Hindu chauvinist party, would have little in common with King Salman, who heads not just the heartland of Islam, but a state dedicated to the promotion of Wahab-ism. India has a Muslim minority, which the BJP does not like. The Islamic State, which it is claimed is backed by the Saudi agencies, has been actively killing the non-Muslim minorities under its rule. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that Modi himself, while Chief Minister of Gujerat, presided over severe anti-Muslim riots. Neither he nor King Salman should approach each other without hypocrisy and more than a touch of irony.
The only way India can hope to maintain the friendship with both Iran and Saudi Arabia is if there is a fourth party acting to hold the ring: the USA. Saudi Arabia is not as worried by any perceived US softening towards Iran, because it has experienced, though admittedly a generation ago, a USA which also relied on Iran in the region. Pre-revolutionary Iran was very pro-American, to the extent that it had diplomatic relations with Israel. The nuclear deal has created expectations that Iran is heading towards a resumption of the old reliance on the USA. These expectations are perhaps premature, but their existence despite the passing of over a generation since the Iranian Revolution, means that they cannot be dismissed out of hand.
In that context, Modi’s visit would represent Saudi Arabia trying to at least prepare for that situation, and perhaps to counter it. It also shows that India is only prepared to be a US proxy until it can exert itself. It has had great-power pretensions even before it came into existence in 1947, and it has sought to dominate the Indian Ocean. It always resented being hemmed by Pakistan in it, with West Pakistan athwart the Arabian Sea, and East Pakistan the Bay of Bengal. In 1971, it eliminated the latter, but the former remained. Not just that, but Gwadar port started going up, giving China a presence in the Arabian Sea too.
It should be noted that India is most active in Balochistan, which has the longest coastline of any Pakistani province. It was perhaps a coincidence that the RAW operative arrested there, Kulbhushan Jadav, was a Navy commander, but the symbolism cannot be ignored. Just as India has established a sort of cooperation with Iran in Chabahar port, Modi would like to do with Saudi Arabia. Of the many agreements signed during this visit, perhaps the most significant for Pakistan were the ones on intelligence-sharing. Saudi Arabia has a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence, and if it started cooperating with RAW, it might mean that Pakistan would be irremediably compromised.
Also of concern to Pakistan is the Saudi agreement to the Indian definition of terrorism. That definition has been crafted to cover its brutal suppression of the Kashmir freedom struggle. Thus its winning Saudi support for its position might be a sneaky route to making Pakistan agree to withdrawing its support through Saudi pressure. Pakistan should not forget that India, particularly under the BJP, wants to end the Partition, and its policy is set in this direction. It needs to ensure that it controls the whole of its surrounding region, and in this respect, Bangladesh is an instructive example: it has not been absorbed, but it is obedient to India, to the extent that the more pro-Indian party, the Awami League, is allowed uncontested elections.
n The writer is a veteran journalist
and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.