If there is one
overarching foreign policy priority for Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh in his second term, it is the long overdue strategic outreach
to the Muslim world. A sustained effort to re-engage the major
Muslim nations is essential in managing many of India’s internal and
external security challenges. They range from the post-Mumbai
imperatives of counter-terrorism at home to ending, once and for
all, Pakistan’s support to anti-India extremist groups.
renewed focus on the Muslim world should help stabilise the
subcontinent, rejuvenate the “Look East” policy, and lay the
foundations for a new “Look West” policy. Above all, it forms the
basis for a credible Indian response to the new US strategy in the
Great Game territory, the Af-Pak region.
strategic imperatives and opportunities in the Muslim world are
underlined by some important recent developments. At home, the CPM’s
crude attempts to project the UPA government’s foreign policy as
“anti-Muslim” have come a cropper. It is the CPM, in fact, that lost
badly needed Muslim support in Bengal.
There is no
doubt that during the Bush years, the relations between the United
States and the Islamic world touched a new low and complicated New
Delhi’s efforts to build partnerships with both Washington and the
major Muslim powers.
successor, Barack Obama’s determined outreach to the Islamic world
now allows India to simultaneously upgrade its engagement with both
in pursuit of self-interest and without having to look over its
If the external
environment is propitious for an Indian initiative towards the
Islamic world, New Delhi’s own national security challenges demand
it. The intolerable aggression against Mumbai last November was not
the first terror strike on India; nor is it likely to be the last.
Mumbai culprits to book and deterring future terror attacks demand
that New Delhi explore all possible means to get at the very source
of Pakistan’s enduring hostility towards India.
American pressures on the Pakistan army to redefine its threat
perceptions away from India and focus on religious extremism that
threatens its very existence are unprecedented and significant.
changing US attitudes towards Pakistan are welcome in New Delhi,
they are certainly not sufficient to ensure lasting peace with
Islamabad. That effort can only be Indian.
Few Indian prime
ministers have invested as much political capital as Manmohan Singh
has in negotiating a political settlement with Pakistan. Well before
Mumbai, Pakistan’s internal dynamics had cast a shadow over the
prospects for clinching what he had begun. If India is to resume the
stalled peace process and take it forward, it will need all the help
it can get from friends in the Islamic world.
caveats, however, are in order as we consider a new strategy towards
the Muslim world. For one, New Delhi must be utterly sensitive to
the extraordinary diversity and conflict in the Muslim world. Note
for example the growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran in
West Asia as well as the Af-Pak region. While some countries are
drifting towards extremism, others like Indonesia are becoming solid
relationship with the Islamic world is not defined by religion
alone. A range of shared legacies — ethnicity with Bangladesh,
culture with Indonesia, history with West Asia to name a few — drive
this complex engagement.
reaching out to the Muslim world, India must avoid at all costs the
tokenism of the past. Key Islamic nations see India as a rising
power and want New Delhi to contribute to the pursuit of their own
national interests. They have no value for India’s empty
sloganeering. None of them has asked for India to downplay ties to
the US or snap the relationship with Israel. What they seek are
purposeful bilateral ties with New Delhi and greater Indian role in
shaping regional politics and promoting economic prosperity.
Four, at a
moment when the US seems headed down the path of relative decline,
Western Europe is marginalised, and China is rapidly rising, India
needs to craft its own independent strategic approach to maintain
the balance of power in the Muslim world.
A good place to
unveil India’s new strategy is Bangladesh, which is vital for South
Asia’s progress towards political moderation, economic modernisation
and regional integration.
Given the huge
popularity of Sonia Gandhi in Bangladesh, Dr Singh might want to
persuade the Congress president to make an early visit to Dhaka
along with Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Together, with
the redoubtable prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, Sonia
and Mamata could electrify the subcontinent’s eastern marches.
east, Indonesia — the world’s largest Islamic nation, a successful
democracy and a rising economic power — has been crying out for
India’s attention. Building a strategic partnership with Jakarta
would rejuvenate India’s Look East policy that hit a political
plateau a while ago.
Turning our gaze
west, India’s summits with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran and
Turkey have been long overdue. An early visit by the prime minister
to these three countries, all of which directly influence
developments in the Af-Pak region, could form the basis for a new
“Look West” policy.
An India that
re-connects with Islamic neighbours towards the east and west will
be better positioned to cope with our urgent national security
problems linked to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
If Dr Singh can
define and sustain an activist policy towards Kabul and Islamabad,
India’s relationships with the US and other major powers will take
care of themselves. For the world is going to look at India for the
foreseeable future through the prism of Af-Pak instability.
The writer is a
professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore