India has a lot to give to the Middle East, and it is just starting to do so seriously. Gamal Nkrumah
speaks to India's Special Envoy for West Asia Chinmaya Gharekhan
Once upon a time, many, many millennia ago, trade relations between South Asia and West Asia (the designation used in India to denote the Middle East) was a thriving business. Centuries lapsed and trade plummeted somewhat, especially during the colonial period when both India and much of the Middle East suffered British colonial oppression. Then liberation from colonial rule followed and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was formed -- Egypt and India being founder members.
In those days India saw eye to eye with other NAM countries and refused point blank to have diplomatic relations with Israel. Today, the perspective of Delhi is somewhat different, but India still maintains warm ties with the Arab world.
Now that the Cold War is over, India has developed an especially close relationship with the United States. "We have an excellent working relationship with Washington," Ambassador Chinmaya Gharekhan, India's Special Envoy for West Asia told Al-Ahram Weekly. Gharekhan stressed that Indo-American relations improved tremendously in the past two years. His view was corroborated by that of US President George W Bush who not so long ago acknowledged that the "world's two largest democracies" concluded a historic agreement that will "allow us to share civilian nuclear technology and bring India's civilian nuclear programme under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Association [IAEA]".
Washington and Delhi have a great deal in common. "India is an open society that demands freedom of speech and freedom of religion," Bush pointed out.
Gharekhan explains that the bilateral relationship between India and the US is based on technical cooperation, including nuclear technology and the US-led war against international terrorism. India has been on the receiving end of terrorism well before 9/11. But he added that India is keen to work hand-in-hand in the fight against terrorism with countries as Egypt, Britain, Germany, Japan and other countries.
That policy, however, is a double-edged sword. His very first diplomatic posting was as first secretary in the Indian embassy in Cairo (1956-1961). India's popularity in the Arab world has plummeted. "India's image has suffered somewhat, and we are aware of that," Gharekhan explained. "That was in part because of the Hindu right- wing government of former premier Vajpayee and his Bahartya Janata Party [BJP]".
According to Gharekhan, the BJP's five years in office were detrimental to India's traditionally warm relations with the Arab world. He stressed that current Indian premier Manmohan Singh of the ruling Congress Party is far more sympathetic to the Arab, and especially the Palestinian cause. Gharekhan pointed out that since India imports roughly 65 per cent of its energy needs from the Middle East, the region is of particular importance to India. He added that no less than four million Indians currently work in the oil- rich Gulf Arab countries. Some states, like the southern Indian state of Kerala are increasingly dependent on remittances of expatriate Indian workers in the Gulf. India today benefits from the $16 billion it receives annually from its workers in the Gulf -- both skilled and manual labour as well as highly-trained professionals. In much the same vein, trade between India and the Arab world in non-energy commodities is also on the rise. India's economy, after all, is now growing in leaps and bounds -- a healthy nine per cent annually.
In February 2005, Indian Prime Minister Singh decided to create a post specifically designed for strengthening ties between India and the Arab world. Gharekhan was chosen for this prickly position. Clearly a small but impressive portfolio of political deliberations is starting to emerge.
It is in this context that a combination of clever diplomacy and traditionally strong ties with the Arab world has brought India back seriously into the regional power game. It is still mainly talk, but talk matters, and no one is more aware of that than the distinguished Indian diplomat Gharekhan who worked closely with his mentor former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (January 1993-31 December 1996). In his capacity as senior political adviser to Boutros- Ghali, he became thoroughly familiar with key international issues, including the Middle East crisis.
Ghali was sufficiently impressed with Gharekhan to note in his forward to the veteran Indian diplomat's book The Horseshoe Table: An Inside View of the UN Security Council, published in 2006.
"Ambassador Gharekhan has rendered a most useful service to all those concerned about the functioning of the international security system by giving an intimate, honest and highly professional account of the manner in which this extremely important organ of the United Nations conducts its business. The Horseshoe Table brings out, as no other book has, the compulsions which members of the council feel, in face of the pressure which public opinion exerts through the media, to 'do something' in difficult situations".
Indeed, Gharekhan believes that the Middle East crisis is precisely one of these "difficult situations". He concedes that India does not have great influence over Arab-Israeli matters, however, he notes that Delhi has excellent working relations with both Israel and the Arab world. India, also has a very special and budding relationship with the United States. The Henry Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, symbolises the nature of the relationship.
President Bush recently described India and the US as "natural partners". He stressed that the relationship between the United States and India has never been more vital. "India is an important ally in the war against extremists and radicals," Bush said.
This does not soothe Arab critics who suspect that India has made a devils bargain with Israel and the US. Gharekhan was UN Coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,
"And it's in our interest that the Indian economy continues to grow. It helps make America more secure". It is in this context, Gharekhan says, that India can play a constructive albeit supportive role in the Middle East peace process.
"India is ill-equipped to play the role of mediator between the Palestinians and Israel," he extrapolated. "Only America has the means and political clout to play such a role," he stressed.
"We can only play a supportive role," he added. Be that as it may, the diplomat no doubt in typical Indian humility plays down his great country's regional political role.