India-Gulf Ties: Gulf Between Aspirations and Achievements

AS part of a periodic reshuffle of diplomatic postings, the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi has sent some very senior and experienced officers as ambassadors to countries of the Gulf - the latest being Talmiz Ahmad as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - a region of the greatest importance to India. To each the policymakers spoke at length about this country's "enormous stakes" in the area and directed him to work for evolving a "role" for India there.

Indian stakes and interests in the Gulf region are as obvious as they are immense, but to talk of an Indian role is a tall order. Let the paradox be put in perspective. 

Geographically, the Gulf is India's extended neighborhood and the only link with the no less vital Central Asia, with Pakistan denying this country transit rights and Afghanistan having sunk into chaos. Historically, a relationship between the subcontinent and the Gulf goes back to ancient, pre-Islamic days. Britain controlled the Gulf littoral tightly because of its overwhelming strategic importance for the defence of India, the brightest jewel in the crown.

Remarkably, however, this control was exercised not from London but from Calcutta (now Kolkata) first and then New Delhi. Even after the end of the British rule in the subcontinent, the Reserve Bank of India was the currency issuing authority in the Gulf; in the mid-1950s this arrangement was terminated at the instance of India, not of the littoral states.

The discovery of oil in the early years of the twentieth century had boosted the Gulf's strategic and economic importance. Since the first oil shock of 1973, to say nothing of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the first Gulf War in 1991, it has swiftly increased and is at a very high pitch today amidst the brisk competition between China, India, Japan and South Korea for securing oil and gas.

Overriding all this, in some respects, is what is sometimes called India's "manpower bonanza" in the region. Three and a half million Indians live and work in the six states comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council. In some of these countries, the Indian workers form the majority of the population.

At first Indian manpower in the Gulf consisted almost exclusively of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Now however the proportion of professionals has gone up to 25 percent. The Indian work force in the Gulf remits home a whopping sum of $20 billion a year, which, incidentally, is the vale of the Indo-Gulf trade also.

All this should normally be conducive to an active Indian role in the Gulf, especially because the entire region is within the operating radius of the Indian Navy, and to maintain the safe and smooth flow of oil is a crucial interest of not just India but also all energy-importing nations.

Unfortunately, however, rude ground realities often come in the way of even the most rational scenario. Until 1970, the Persian Gulf was a British lake. Now it is an American lake with the formidable presence of at least two carrier groups in the Gulf waters and the US bogged down in Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq and apparently hell-bent on taking some kind of military action against Iran. Pakistan-specific issues also play a small but significant part in influencing attitudes in a predominantly Muslim area where the two South Asian neighbors often bicker.

More importantly this factor also affects America's willingness to let India, its strategic partner, be active in the region, except in a subordinate position to it. It prefers Indo-US maritime cooperation to centre on the Strait of Malacca rather than the Persian Gulf. Only the other day the US secretary of state announced huge military sales and aid to Gulf and West Asian countries. India, itself dependent on imports of the main weapons systems it needs, is a non-player in this arena.

Nor is this all. Until two years ago, the Chinese navy hadn't crossed the Malacca Strait. Now, there is a considerable presence of the Chinese navy in the Upper Arabian Sea. Moreover, China has acquired a major advantage over India by having the use of the Gwadar port at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz that it has built on the Makran coast of Pakistan, its all-weather friend.

The crowning irony is that even in areas such as economic cooperation between the fast-growing India and the booming countries of the Gulf - in which India can make massive contributions in IT and other sectors and the oil-rich Gulf countries can meet India's virtually insatiable needs for capital investment - little has been done.

It is not that the leaders on the two sides are lacking in imagination. Grandiose promises have been made during the visits to India of President Khatami of Iran in 2003, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was chief guest at last year's Republic Day parade, and UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Dubai ruler, who came here recently. But they all became victims of the principal Indian weakness of being long on declarations of intent and woefully short on implementing them.

And what can be more distressing than that no Indian Prime Minister has visited any Gulf country since P.V. Narasimha Rao went to Oman in 1993? Under the circumstances, it should be no surprise if there is a yawning gulf between Indian aspirations and achievements in relation to the Gulf.

(Inder Malhotra is a veteran commentator on political and strategic affairs. He can be reached at indermalhotra30@hotmail.com)


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