Saturday, March 7, 2020

‘The diplomatic cost’: government’s domestic agenda has begun undercutting its secular foreign policy

The Modi government’s majoritarian domestic agenda, now being fine-tuned for the West Bengal election, has begun under-cutting its secular foreign policy, which even Vajpayee espoused. Delhi violence, Delhi CAA protests, northeast Delhi violence, Delhi riots, northeast Delhi riots, Express Opinion, Indian Express 
The situation had simmered for weeks as Delhi had an acrimonious election, which the lost BJP badly. (Express File Photo)



Protests over the Narendra Modi government’s handling of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) peaked and the capital slipped into widespread arson, looting and murder as US President Donald Trump arrived, on a stand-alone visit, on February 24 in Ahmedabad and then went on to Delhi via Agra.


The situation had simmered for weeks as Delhi had an acrimonious election, which the lost BJP badly. Happenings in the city distracted from the visit, even as glasses were raised at Rashtrapati Bhavan at the Indian President’s banquet on February 25.

However, as the situation in Delhi spun into violence the next day, in an untutored media interaction at the US ambassador’s residence,  President Trump ducked questions about the CAA or Delhi riots, nonchalantly remarking it was “up to India” to deal with it. This may have brought comfort to the Indian government but the world at large differed.

Delhi had already exchanged angry words with Malaysia, Turkey and even Indonesia over their varied critique of India’s handling of its Muslim minority when Iran joined the issue. First, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif condemned the “wave of organised violence against Indian Muslims”, adding that “Iran has been a friend of India”.

India’s foreign ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest the inappropriateness of the minister’s remark. Soon after, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei found the time, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, to excoriate the Indian government. Claiming that the “hearts of Muslims all over the world are grieving over the massacre of Muslims in India”, he warned that unless the Indian government confronted “extremist Hindus”, India stands to be isolated from “the world of Islam”. Adding insult to injury, he appended #IndianMuslimsInDanger.

A facile response, ideal for television debates, can be that Iran is being hypocritical as it has not expressed remorse over the Chinese repression of Uyghurs. But China is a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, which also sustains the Iranian economy despite US sanctions. On the other hand, India has a Shia population second only to that of Iran. There are two Iranian consulates in India in Hyderabad and Mumbai. Iran seeks a third one in Lucknow. Qom also hosts many Shia students, particularly from the Kargil region.

Two interrelated questions flow from this reasoning: What is Iran’s importance for India and the trajectory of India-Iran relations over last two decades? And why is Iran adopting this sharp tone over what the Indian government argues is an internal matter?

The closest India-Iran strategic convergence began in the 1990s, particularly after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 1996. These ties blossomed under reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In 2001, the two signed the Teheran Declaration. Khatami in his opening remarks said that Iran always admired India’s secular credentials and Vajpayee had maintained that tradition. Iran thus lay to rest the Islamic world’s discomfort over the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992. In 2003, Khatami was chief guest at India’s Republic Day and a New Delhi Declaration was issued.

 But thereafter, the relationship began to slip as Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme and assistance from Pakistan’s rogue scientist A Q Khan was uncovered in mid-2003. Concomitantly, India was drawing closer to the US and negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement. The US used the nuclear issue to cause a cleavage as Indian and Iranian interests began seriously diverging. PM Modi also moved more forthrightly to engage Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Khamenei’s tweet reflects the perception that India is in the US-Saudi-Emirati corner and of little use as long as Trump is president. Hugs in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Ahmedabad would have led Iran to this conclusion. In the Islamic world, Iran by publicly defending Indian Muslims, embarrasses the silent Saudis. It also calculates that India needs access to Afghanistan through Chabahar to assist the Ghani government or influence developments there. The Modi government’s majoritarian domestic agenda, now being fine-tuned for the West Bengal election, has begun under-cutting its secular foreign policy, which even Vajpayee espoused. The coming months will show if the domestic agenda is pared or pursued despite diplomatic costs.
 
Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and ambassador to Iran and UAE.--IE
(Excerpted)

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