Amit Baruah

India looks at it only in terms of remittances and energy requirements

  • In the current strategic environment it's easier to "look east" than "look west" in Asia
  • United States does not want India to play a role in West Asia

    NEW DELHI: External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee left for Iran on Tuesday, but West Asia still awaits a visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh since he took office in May 2004. So far, there is no indication that Dr. Singh plans to do so.

    The Prime Minister's itinerary since taking office does reveal the country's foreign policy priorities New York and London (September 2004), The Hague (November 2004), Gleneagles and London (July 2005), Washington (July 2005), France and the U.S. (September 2005), Germany and Uzbekistan (April 2006) and London and Finland (October 2006).

    Dr. Singh has travelled thrice to London alone, thrice to the United States, and paid another three visits to different destinations in Europe. Some of these trips were for multilateral occasions, with bilateral bits being tagged on.

    Add to this trips to Laos (November 2004), Afghanistan (August 2005), Dhaka (November 2005) and Kuala Lumpur (December 2005) and Cebu, the Philippines (January 2007) and you get the idea that West Asia has remained outside the Prime Minister's agenda.

    According to Qamar Agha, a visiting professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia, the Prime Minister's priority is, clearly, Western nations. "We don't have any leverage in the Israel-Palestine question. We are not players. So it's better to stay out," he told this correspondent.

    However, Mr. Agha believes that India's relationship with the Persian Gulf nations is fine, with New Delhi and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreeing to a free trade pact. He also pointed out that a Saudi King had travelled to India for the first time in 50 years and an Emir of Kuwait after 30 years.

    A former Indian Ambassador, who worked in the region, however, had a different view on the issue. While there had been high-level visits from the Gulf, there had been no visits at the level of Prime Minister from India.

    The retired envoy thought that nations in the region were unhappy about this, "but they are too polite to say anything."

    Girijesh Pant, a professor who specialises in West Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told this correspondent that he got the impression that India was looking at the region in terms of remittances and energy requirements alone.

    Prof. Pant said in the current strategic environment it was easier to "look east" than "look west" in Asia. According to him, India, which had been leaning towards Israel for some time, did not want to take a firm stand on Palestine.

    He held that the United States, which was quite happy about India playing a role in East Asia, did not want it to do so in West Asia. "If we say something on the Israel-Palestinian question, it might upset the Americans," Prof. Pant said.

    According to him, Indian and American views on "political Islam" too were quite different. "We are feeling shy in reacting to issues," he said.