Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo: Handout via AFP

If India’s opposition Congress party forms the next government, it will seek to dilute strategic aspects of three of the country’s bilateral relationships in the Middle East: those with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been under relentless attack by the opposition for being centralized, personality-centric and ideologically at variance with that of past governments. The Indian National Congress, in its manifesto, has labeled Modi’s policy as “transactional,” “marked by outrageous flip-flops,” and more seriously, “reduced to the whim of one man.” Not only has the INC proposed to reorient India’s focus toward its immediate neighborhood and to the member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (its manifesto does not mention the Middle East or Gulf Cooperation Council), it also explicitly promises to “reverse the damaging developments” of Modi’s foreign policy.

Under a Congress-led government, India’s policy toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE would once again be determined chiefly by the “Kerala lobby,” that is, politicians from the southern state of Kerala, whose residents form a majority of the Indian diaspora in the GCC region. This has traditionally led to a foreign policy that has precluded an upgrading of India’s relations with GCC countries, viewing them chiefly through the prism of remittances and energy imports. In addition, a Congress party led by its current president, Rahul Gandhi, has taken a distinct turn toward the political left.

These factors will combine in effect to kill the Modi government’s efforts to impart strategic content to India’s bilateral relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The first casualty is likely to be a joint investment plan by Saudi Aramco, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and three Indian public-sector oil companies to build a US$44 billion refinery on India’s west coast. Since the project has run into protests by farmers reluctant to give up their land, the INC, which has staked its election campaign on farmers’ rights, is likely to scrap the project or seek to renegotiate its terms in a way that threatens its viability.

Similarly, the UAE’s proposed $75 billion investment into India’s infrastructure sector over 10 years is also likely to be stymied under a Congress government. For example, the recently announced joint investment plan by the UAE’s DP World and India’s National Infrastructure and Investment Fund to invest $3 billion in India’s ports is likely to be reversed by a Congress government. While the Congress party’s manifesto welcomes private capital into India’s road and railway networks, it is silent on the issue of ports.

Politically, there is consternation in India’s foreign-policy circles about the UAE having inserted itself, perhaps unwittingly, into India’s domestic politics on the side of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party

Politically, there is consternation in India’s foreign-policy circles about the UAE having inserted itself, perhaps unwittingly, into India’s domestic politics on the side of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The UAE’s extradition last December of an arms dealer to India, wanted in connection with his role in an arms scam allegedly linked to the Congress party, was viewed as a political act. His upcoming testimony could prove damaging for the INC.

Similarly, the UAE’s recent awarding of the Zayed Medal, its highest civilian honor, to Modi amid India’s ongoing election season has also been seen as providing a fillip to his re-election campaign. This has created disquiet among the INC’s foreign-policy officials about pursuing closer engagement with the UAE, should the party come to power.

Modi’s three-day visit to Israel in July 2017 was unprecedented in that not only was it the first by an Indian prime minister to that country, but that it was not paired with a concomitant trip to the Palestinian territories. In doing so, Modi chose to pursue India’s relations with Israel independently of that with Palestine. While previous Indian governments conducted the bilateral relationship in a businesslike manner and under relative secrecy for fear of alienating India’s approximately 200 million Muslims, Modi chose to impart political substance to the bilateral relationship publicly.

During his visit, Modi and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote a joint editorial in which they identified their countries “walking hand in hand into the future as partners.” In comments to the Israeli press, Modi said that to Indians, “Israel is a real friend.” This was done to appeal to his Hindu nationalist base back home, whose brand of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has many parallels with Zionism. Indeed, Hindu nationalists have long expressed admiration for Zionism and Israel, viewing both as a useful template to guide relations with India’s Muslim minority internally and with Pakistan externally.

A Congress-led government is likely to dial back the overt political component of the bilateral relationship. As the party of India’s independence struggle, the INC and its post-independence governments have historically offered solidarity to the Palestinian cause, viewing it as part of the global anti-colonial movement. Given this, a Congress-led government is likely to tone down the volume on India-Israel relations significantly. While continuing to import sophisticated weaponry from Israel, a Congress-led government would drain the relationship of any publicly visible or strategic import.

Which party emerges victorious from India’s general elections will only become apparent in late May. Should the INC lead the next government, there will be a marked dilution in India’s ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. Foreign-policy officials in these countries should plan for this possibility.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.

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