India–West Asia Relations Under the ‘Nationalist’ Modi Government

Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
India–West Asia
Relations Under the
‘Nationalist’ Modi
Omair Anas1
India’s West Asia policy discourse has traditionally revolved around its energy
dependency, security and the welfare of the 7 million Indians living in the region.
In recent years, particularly since the coming of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
to power in 2014, the issues of counterterrorism, security, defence cooperation
and non-oil trade have gained in importance. This qualitative shift is partially
guided and supported by both pragmatism and the ideological differences that
the BJP and its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), had been maintaining
against the West Asia policy of the earlier governments led by the Congress
party. Through explaining the ideological perspectives of the Indian National
Congress (INC) and the BJP, this article argues that the changing global and
West Asian landscape, the consolidation of Chinese influence in and around
India’s land and maritime boundaries, the instability in the energy market and the
insecurity of the Arab uprising–hit West Asian monarchies have provided the
BJP government an opportune time to rethink and reorient India’s relations with
West Asia. While ideological determinants dominate the public discourse, as the
BJP’s top leadership elaborates in the public domain, the policy choices made are
not always in tune with these. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often preferred
the pragmatic to the ideological, and this he has done over the expectations of
his party and supporters.
West Asia, India, Arab, Hindu, Narendra Modi, BJP, INC
1 Assistant Professor, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Ankara, Turkey.
Corresponding author:
Omair Anas, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Kızılca Mahallesi, 06760 Çubuk, Ankara, Turkey.
International Studies
58(1) 59–79, 2021
2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881720984324
60 International Studies 58(1)
With Narendra Modi in office as prime minister since 2014, many foreign policy
experts in India argue that India has begun to see the gradual ending of its reluctant
and ambivalent foreign policy. Modi’s proactive and internationalist leadership is
being compared with that of Nehru’s (Mohan, 2015). Although many critics
initially pointed to the lack of ‘strategic vision’, ‘overall national security strategy’
and ‘new ideas and synergy’, Modi energized foreign policy with his
‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘Act East’ policies and raised India’s ambitions as a
leading power. (Jaishankar, 2016). India’s West Asia policy perspectives under the
Modi government have found a new ideological, as well as pragmatic, rationale
for ending the long-time reluctance to reset its relations. The changing global and
regional contexts, as well as the ideological roots of the decision-makers in New
Delhi, are used to justify the reset.
The end of the Cold War created many difficulties for not only India but also
other members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The Islamic Revolution in
Iran, the Iran–Iraq war, the Soviet invasion of and the humiliating withdrawal
from Afghanistan, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Iraq’s aggression against
Kuwait and the subsequent US military interventions in 1991 and 2003 to remove
Saddam Hussain were all developments that entirely unsettled the NAM template
of Indian foreign policy. The key NAM players from the Arab world, such as
Egypt, for example, had already normalized their relations with Israel and, in
return, started receiving US military and development aid. Later developments
proved that the West Asian region was on the verge of further divisions, and intra-
region rivalries were going to define regional security. The Palestinian cause as
championed by the NAM was overshadowed by the Saudi–Iranian, Iran–Iraq,
Iraq–Kuwait and other intra-Arab rivalries. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003
exposed the region’s old vulnerabilities, sectarianism, ethnic conflicts and fights
over energy rents. Subsequently, the uprisings that shook the region in 2010
forced the regimes to rethink their ways of treating their ordinary citizens. The
crisis, though, has not yet ended, with civil wars still dragging on in Libya, Syria
and Yemen.
The choices available to India in such a situation were not many, except to
acknowledge that India could neither afford to take sides nor did it have the
resources to match the capability of the existing Western players or the non-
Western players such as Russia and China. Indian policymakers limited themselves
to official statements that never required any immediate action except where the
safety and security of Indian nationals living in the region were in question. The
arrival of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in office in May 2014 was indeed a
development that was carefully watched by India’s West Asian neighbours. The
regional leadership was aware of the ideological and political inclinations of the
BJP. However, the later interactions arising from India’s BJP-led foreign policy
vis-à-vis the West Asian region proved that they had found a synergy of interests
for acting together.

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