Two success stories of Indian diplomacy on a bleak landscape

Two success stories of Indian diplomacy on a bleak landscape

M.K. Bhadrakumar,
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The direct maiden flight to Israel by Air India in the weekend made headlines in the world media only because Saudi Arabia gave the plane overflight rights. This was of course the first time Saudis opened their air space for a commercial flight to Israel. President Trump’s Air Force One travelled on the Riyadh-Tel Aviv route last November but that was a VVIP flight.

It remains to be seen if the El AI, the Israeli airline, gets similar permission as Air India. Most probably not. It seems there is already some heartburn in Tel Aviv because Air India will now be in a position to offer cheaper ticket prices than El AI.

But the small print here is far more important than the ‘breaking news’ about the Saudis opening their air space for a fight to Israel – namely, that this privilege has been first extended to our country. It only underscores that Indian diplomacy in the West Asian region under the present government has been a success story – and, with Saudi Arabia in particular (despite the new verve in Saudi-Pakistani relations and in the India-Iran relations.)

Successive governments in Delhi have managed well the balancing act involving India’s ties with Israel and with the Muslim Middle East respectively. No surprises here. The Modi government hyped up the Israel ties and went overboard but the countries in the Muslim East aren’t upset. On the whole, it is for the first time that a certain dynamism is discernible in the Indian diplomacy toward the Muslim countries in West Asia.

Perhaps, another equally gratifying success story would be that the Modi government has begun breathing life into India’s relations with Russia. The challenge on this front is even bigger, as it involves making up for lost time, too, in addition to tackling inertia. Once again, the personal interest PM Modi has taken in injecting new vitality into the India-Russia relations seems to be making all the difference. It seems that word has gone around in the Delhi durbar that the PM takes personal interest in rebooting the India-Russia relationship. (PM Modi was one of the first world statesmen to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his re-election as president in last Sunday’s Russian elections.)

The Economic Times reported today that the commercial contract for the purchase of Russia’s advanced S-400 air defence system is getting its final touch and is likely to be signed during the visit by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to Russia in the first week of April. The deal has been under negotiation for almost 2 years. China and Turkey overtook India in wrapping up their deals with Russia for the S-400 system.

Interestingly, the ET report also mentions that the collaboration between the two countries on the development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft is likely to be on Sitharaman’s agenda of discussions in Moscow. If so, the lobby within the Indian defence establishment that has been working against the project is biting the dust. There has been a sustained vilification campaign also in the western media, apparently inspired by competing arms vendors. Hopefully, some of the new transactions in the defence field will have significant “Make in India” content as well.

However, the real breakthrough in the India-Russia relationship will largely depend on our success in giving greater content to the economic relations between the two countries. India needs to think up some big ideas. One potential area could be a gas pipeline project connecting India and Iran, which has been talked about oft and on for years.

The Russian oil giant Rosneft announced last year a road map of $30 billion investment plans in Iran’s oil and gas fields. Now, Rosneft also owns an Indian subsidiary in Essar and hopes to become a big player in the Indian petroleum market. Rosneft will be the third global player after Royal Dutch Shell and BP to enter the Indian fuel retailing market. Rosneft also acquired the 58 million tonne Vadinar Port in Gujarat for importing cheap crude. Rosneft sees the India business as a gateway to expand in the Asia-Pacific region by supplying fuels to Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.

Trilateral cooperation involves painstaking effort at the practical level and the requisite political will to strategize the thinking. This is where the climate is excellent today for India-Russia-Iran cooperation. Iran, in particular, will be keenly pursuing an ‘ostpolitik’ in the period ahead. The influential Iranian political figure, Alae’ddinBroujerdi, who heads the Majlis security and foreign policy committee was quoted as saying today in Tehran, “Americans are pushing for harder policies towards the Islamic Republic of Iran and we need to strengthen our view towards the East, especially China and Russia.”

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