India’s Role In The Muslim World: A Foreign Policy Challenge – Analysis


By Saeed Naqvi

Supposing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seated across the table with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, were to say:

“The murderous regime in Syria has killed 30,000 of its own citizens. India by itself has no clout in Syria. There is nothing you can do on your own. It is time therefore that you become part of the solution by falling in line with us. Assad simply cannot have a role in the solution having murdered so many. You must make a choice: does the obstructive role being played by Russia and China deserve your support? And you know as well as anyone else that the regime’s days are numbered.”


What would be Krishna’s response to this imaginary statement? Well, imaginary the statement may be but, with moderated tonal quality, it may yet reflect sentiments the Indian side has heard from their US counterparts in recent exchanges on West Asia. Do Indians listen in silence to this case for the prosecution? Or do they dwell on the case for the defence? Being reminded that India has no hand to play, must hurt.

What exactly is the situation inside Syria? When I was there, which is several months ago, the world media had conceded outright victory to the Syrian opposition and safe havens were being considered for Assad and his family. The Assads are still around, although speculation is rife of him being considered for “targeted killing” as distinct from “political assassination”. Wondrous play on words!

There is a difficulty analyzing a dynamic story like Syria where so much technical, military, human resource has been injected from outside. We may have forgotten but once we described this as cross border terrorism. The facts on Syria this reporter internalized in August, 2011, can be only partly relevant a year after the first external probes began to find local hospitality. And then external and internal amalgamated into scores of opposition groups.

The earlier case was based on personal observation and interviews. Contrary to conventional wisdom a year ago, Assad could not fall because he controls (loosely now) a Ba’ath power structure not dissimilar to the one Saddam Hussain supervised in Baghdad. It took Shock and Awe, invasion, occupation, half a million Iraqi lives, thousands of US and British soldiers dead: only then was the US able to leave Iraq the wreck that it is today. Does the West have the stomach to repeat that in Syria when Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya continue to be weeping sores?

Such a question would be particularly valid at this juncture when the world is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington. But the reality is that Foreign Policy – and National Security establishment in Washington, barring extraordinary change at the top, moves seamlessly from one administration to the next: faces change, but attitudes do not.

Election season or no election season, the US establishment focused on West Asia is pushing ahead regardless, holding the hand of France, Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, orchestrating the eventual fall of the Syrian regime.

In high stake poker there is always a little bit of bluff and bluster. There may be some here too, particularly to play on Russian nerves. As a scholar told me in Moscow recently: “Putin will not let down Assad, but fewer are the chances of his letting down Russia!”

Mikheil Saakashvili’s eclipse in Georgia must have provided relief in Moscow from the relentless Western pressure on Syria. For the time being, Moscow and China will stand their ground because the cost of an alternative policy will be too high in the region.

The Saudi interests are clear: a fear of encirclement by Shia populations. But surely Saudi Wahabis will remain a minority even in an augmented Sunni ocean, the kind of Sunnism that obtains in the region stretching from Morocco right upto the borders of Saudi Arabia.

Two Saudi Crown Princes have died in the past year. The current one is ailing and King Abdullah is in and out of hospitals. A durable Saudi strategy must await the impending succession to be over.

The lightening shift in Turkish policy in the region has astonished observers. Well known journalist Mehmet Birand told me last year. “We were a docile ally of the US in the past and now a dissident country in the Western Alliance.” No longer can he say that. Tayyip Erdogan won three straight elections incrementally increasing his vote from 36 to 42 and in 2011 to 49 percent. His declared ambition was to have “zero problems with all our neighbours”. With neighbouring Greece on its knees, Turkey’s rise seemed unprecedented.

Why has Erdogan staked so much on the Syrian expedition?

Firstly, does he see Democratic Turkey as a model for the Muslim world in transition?

Secondly, is this vision accompanied by echoes of an Ottoman past which, he must know, is anathema to the Arabs?

Third, is his Akhwanul Muslimeen core, earlier toned down to be acceptable to the Army’s Kemalist secularism, resurfacing with the Akhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) on the rise elsewhere in the Arab world?

Four, is he not opening up fronts with 18 million Kurds, 20 million Turkish Alawites, and Russia’s Slav and Orthodox Church links in the Balkans which had been tamed in the recent past. Forcing a Moscow-Damascus flight, carrying some Russian families, land in Turkey on suspicions of arms being shipped has caused President Putin to postpone his visit to Ankara.

Five, what is the design in provoking direct confrontation with Iran?

Six, is the biggest incentive for the shift the large off shore gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean? This deserves to be focused on.

Whatever the combination of motives, the gamble for Turkey is a huge one.

Iran, ofcourse, must continue to live dangerously between negotiation on the nuclear issue and the risk of being attacked. “Attack Iran” lobby has not weakened in Israel or the US.

In all of this, where does India stand? In the fictitious script Hillary Clinton says India has no clout in the region. Possibly true. But how did Nehru and Indira Gandhi have influence in the area. It will be argued that that was during the Cold War, when India led the Non Aligned which became redundant in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

But with Western decline, a new world order may well be taking shape. In shaping the new equilibrium New Delhi does have a leadership position in groupings like the Non Aligned which will meet in Cairo in coming years. Only by reinventing its leadership role in such groupings will New Delhi insulate itself from the ignominy of being told that in so and so part of the world India does not matter

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

5 thoughts on “India’s Role In The Muslim World: A Foreign Policy Challenge – Analysis

  • October 18, 2012 at 11:06 am

    No US President will say that the West is in decline. That is a taboo. This lack of information to the domestic audience in the US fosters a false sense of belief that the US is still number 1. It is not. Had it been No. 1 it would have been able to prevent oil exports to India and China from Iran. That is a basic example.
    After Truman came up with the so called Cold War theory –that either us or with them which is still been thrown around-India who wanted no part in taking sides was punished for years like many other countries. This is not forgotten. As a result of bad policies –India was contained and Pakistan was empowered. While borrowing money from China, Taiwan is being sold arms to protect them. The Shah of Iran [then], Sadam Hussein [then] like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are being kept in power simply because it is useful to the USA.
    So it’s easy to say-the New World Order and shaping the equilibrium-what is that? What equilibrium is that? What is good for the Gosse is not good for the gander. So it will be difficult for the USA to dictate any terms now since its views are so different from the rest of the world. In the USA they have the World Series for baseball-but there is no word participating. A game called “football” is played with the hands in the USA, using a Rugby ball-and this real “Football” is called soccer-something millions don’t know. It’s very hard to deal with Martians when you are on the earth. I may be wrong but until the US accepts the views of the world-the decline will follow.

  • October 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Saeed Naqvi is recommending false bravado for India, to goad it, possibly at the behest of US, to meddle in Middle East, where its old moral clout under the heyday of Non-alignment movement, was still had some relevance. Leaving aside NAM, India, in the Muslim/Arab world, is increasingly being looked upon as anti-Islamist and beholden to Israel and the US, for its economic rejuvenation. It is therefore not neutral enough to the standards of John Foster Dulles, who called being neutral as immoral. India’s foreign policy establishment is in the hands of die-hard Brahmins, who suffer from existential threat from the bogey of Islam and Muslims. India therefore cannot be relied upon as a neutral country whose voice can play a moderating role in the new emerging democratic formations of the Muslim world. Contrary to the suggestion of the writer rooting for insulating India from the ignominy of being ignored, India should preserve its dignity by keeping itself aloof till its services at any level are invited by the Middle Eastern countries and not give in to pressures from US and Israel groups in the media, who are treated as paid workers.

    • October 23, 2012 at 5:31 pm

      What ignorant nonsense! India’s foreign policy is NOT based on the whims and fancies of people, castes or religions, to believe so is utterly ignorant!
      In India, the Ministry of External affairs produces carefully calibrated foreign policy responses based purely on national self interest that is rooted to pragmatism. Do you really think even Indian Muslims care if some Syrian savages club each other over the head for Iran or Turkey ?? To most Indians, Syrian Shia-sunni squabbles are meaningless when domestically India has so much going on. India’s entire outlook with the Middle East is based on Indian self-interest of securing stable oil supply and ensuring the welfare of its citizens in those nations. Recently the scepter of terrorism has also influenced matters somewhat. In these areas Syria has neither oil nor a sizeable Indian diaspora to warrant any attention. It is only with Iran that considerations like Afghanistan/Taliban/Pakistan comes into the picture as future Indian national security interests require Iran’s co-operation to some degree. Syria is meaningless and as far as India can, it will avoid taking a stand unless there is some “reward” of voting one way or the other diplomatically.
      Concerning Middle Eastern attitudes, as long as the Arabs sell oil and treat Indians fairly in those nations, India could care less about “winning over” the Arabs. Given the fact that the Arabs have regularly supported Pakistan against India in the past, it is the Arabs who ought to seek to curry India’s favor, just as Saudi Arabia and Iran are realizing now with the Chinese and Americans pressing them on both sides.

  • October 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Saeed Naqvi is a well known journalist in India and holds a respectful place for his job. Any comment on his assessment of Syrian politics is as difficult as the political equation in Muslim world as a whole. Being a Muslim, Naqvi may not realise the Muslim factor, which is the most troubling and testing issue in considering any policy about the volatile Muslim psyche vis a vis powerful western allies; more so after 1989. China’s emegence recently both as strong political as well as economic power diluted the weakness of Russian collapse.

    One is always worried about the developments in Muslim world vis a vis Western interests. I only hope that it doesn’t escalate further in the wider conflict especially when US is in the election mood. These are trying times for the political players who see more on their vested interests than the life and survival of common masses. Another relevant factor is overgrown global population threatening the limited resources.

  • October 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    India in my view has to align itself with democratic countries specially the US. Contarary to the views expressed by some, the US is not declining but that other powers have risen. The US still is the most innovative country inthe worl with the best Universities in the world. Year after year it wins the most number of Nobel prizes, which is no accident.. A continuous flow of immigrants keeps it a new nation. For Indians and many others the US is a destination of choice for education and immigrationand both India and The US have benefited from this choice. I do not seem any Indians migrating to Russia or China. The ones going to the Mid East are second or third class citizens. In both Syria and Iraq before the overthrow of Saddam, a minority population is and was controlling the country brutally. Being nonaligned during the Nehru years with its socialist policies resulted in India being a poor country with all metrics from human index, to corruption, to ease of doing business, being among the lowest in the world. There is a big difference between Arab Muslims and the ones in East Asia. One being regressive and the other being progressive. Mr. Naqvi is a left winger and has the wrong prescription for India.


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