NEW DELHI – Although it's been a quarter-century since India came out from its era of socialist economics and pro-Soviet foreign policy, recent discussions I held with intellectuals in New Delhi and elsewhere suggest to me that foreign policy specialists in this ascending power are still fundamentally thinking through their role in the world, especially vis-à-vis the United States, China, and what they call West Asia (i.e., the Middle East).
India's Prime Minister Narenda Modi (C) took a selfie in August 2015 with UAE's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan (L) as they toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Although the first two countries rightly attract most attention, the Middle East presents acute challenges to India – plus a dash of opportunity. Here's a review of principal connections to that volatile region:
Islamism: Islamic influence has historically nearly always moved from the Middle East to other regions, including South Asia, and almost never the reverse. At present, that is the case with the Islamist doctrine – the contention that to become rich and strong, Muslims must revert to a medieval model and fully apply Islamic laws – which bellows out most strongly from Saudi Arabia and Iran targeting, respectively, Sunni and Shiite Muslims worldwide. Their influence radicalizes traditionally moderate Muslim populations in many regions (such as the Balkans and Indonesia) and carries extraordinarily dire implications for India, whose vast Muslim community of 177 million represents far and away the largest religious minority in the world. (The 67 million Christians in China rank second.)
Iranian aggression: Two factors inspire a favorable Indian attitude toward Iran and explain New Delhi's assiduous efforts for good relations with Tehran: deep historic cultural ties and the hostile Pakistan state that sits between them. Fine, but unless kept in check, with the Government of India standing up for its interests and rights, this predisposition can degenerate into appeasement. The Iranian regime has already deployed violence in India, its bellicosity threatens the energy supplies India depends on from leaving the Persian Gulf, and its drive for nuclear weapons destabilizes the entire region. In this light, New Delhi having signed it first-ever defense agreement with Qatar in 2008 and its second with Saudi Arabia in 2014, two Iran-endangered states, is positive, whereas deepening Indian investment into Iran's Chabahar port area will likely hamstring Indian policy.
Iranian agents bombed an Israeli diplomat's vehicle in New Delhi in February 2013, wounding two.
Goading Pakistan: Riyadh's money supports Pakistani confrontation with India in two key ways: by massively funding Islamic schools (madrassahs) that churn out radicalized students who, having memorized the Koran but lacking modern skills, serve as jihad fodder; and by generously helping to pay for the "Islamic" nuclear bomb that, with its exclusively India-centric purpose, threatens the country since 1998.
Trade and expatriates: As the world's third largest importer of crude oil, India both depends on the Middle East and is needed by it to sell to. The $150 billion trade with just the six GCC countries made up about a fifth of India's annual trade even as Indians are among the largest direct investors in Persian Gulf real estate. Indian workers in the Persian Gulf countries number about 6.5 million and are an important source to India of both financial remittances (estimated at US$35 billion a year) and of Wahhabi influence.
Alliance with Israel: Growing relations with the Jewish state offer a singularly bright note. India's population may be over 150 times larger than Israel's (1,300 million vs. 8 million) but the two countries share important qualities. Most profoundly, their populations adhere to an ancient, non-proselytizing religion. Both practice democracy and secularism, ally with the United States, and possess nuclear weapons. Both have substantial Muslim minorities (14 percent in India, 19 percent in Israel) whose loyalties remain in question as both countries face a potential existential threat from a Muslim state (Pakistan, Iran).
Beyond these generalities, each country has specific benefits to offer the other: The two states can share intelligence. Jerusalem can help with access in Washington, New Delhi can help with access for what remains of the non-aligned movement. In areas where Israel is a world leader, such as water technology, medicine, security, and hi-tech innovation, Indians need what Israelis have to offer even as Israelis need the vast Indian market. Indeed, India's government is about to purchase US$3 billion in Israeli military hardware, Israel's largest-ever sale.
Already important, the India-Middle East relationship is growing with time in dangers and potential. The question looming ahead is how well Indians can derive from West Asia what benefits them while avoiding what's toxic. Given the many complexities of that tie, this will not be easy.
May 23, 2016 update: On New Delhi's role in building the Chabahar port in Iran and signing a three-way deal with the Iranian and Afghan governments to avoid Pakistan, see Niharika Mandhana, "India, Afghanistan and Iran Sign Deal for Transport Corridor" in the Wall Street Journal.