””

India, Pakistan and the new Great Game

India is closing in on Pakistan, isolating it by winning over its traditional allies and friends

In the run-up to India's 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, Mr Narendra Modi, promised "achche din" (good times) and "sab ka saath, sab ka vikas" (inclusive society, development for all) at every poll rally. And the voters, weary of numerous scams that dogged the then Congress government, took those promises seriously, handing Mr Modi an impressive victory.

In the two years that the BJP has been in power, the great secular and socialist republic, as envisioned by the framers of the Indian Constitution, has undergone extraordinary transformation, shifting decisively rightwards.

There has been a sharp spike in religious intolerance and violence across India. Muslims and Christians are increasingly being targeted by the BJP rabble-rousers and numerous outfits of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the governing party, in the name of beef - the cow is sacred to Hindus - and "love jihad", accusing Muslims of preying on Hindu women. Hundreds of authors and intellectuals have returned government awards to protest against the rising intolerance.

Mr Modi has maintained his enigmatic silence, refusing to rein in his ministers and lawmakers, calling for "disciplining" Muslims - and worse.

Belying the growing turmoil at home, Mr Modi's frequent foreign sojourns and his hard-selling of India's soft power paint a rosy picture of a country at peace with itself, ready to lead the world. Wherever he goes, he makes it a point to address large meetings of the diaspora with Indian missions and affiliated organisations preparing for months ahead to ensure they are well attended. His Dubai event was attended by more than 50,000 cheering expatriates.

He has been trying to win friends and influence people in unexpected places, in particular, countries traditionally close to India's arch-enemy Pakistan. Delhi has unleashed a massive diplomatic offensive to put pressure on Pakistan by forging ties with some of Islamabad's closest allies.


Saudi Arabia's King Salman (right) and Mr Modi at a welcoming ceremony for the visiting Indian Prime Minister in Riyadh on April 3.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As BJP general secretary Ram Madhav said ahead of Mr Modi's Saudi Arabian visit this month: "We have to do everything to deal with Pakistan - use economics, strategy and emotional ties to win the hearts of Islamabad's friends." India and Pakistan have fought three wars and have been locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for the better part of their history.

Mr Modi's visit to the United Arab Emirates last August was not remarkable - what was remarkable was the extraordinary welcome the Gulf state rolled out for him. It had little to do with the fact that the UAE is home to more than 2.2 million Indians and India is the second-biggest trading partner of the UAE after China.

It was more to do with Arab anger over Pakistan's refusal to join the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen's Shi'ite Houthis, supported by Iran. In view of the close ties that Gulf states share with Islamabad, Arabs expected the latter to come aboard pronto when invited to join the Yemen front.

In view of its own large Shi'ite minority, Islamabad is wary of getting drawn into an Arab-Iran and Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. Besides, Iran and Pakistan share a long border and much else. So after cleverly putting the issue to debate in Parliament which overwhelmingly rejected the idea, Islamabad excused itself.

However, the decision is proving expensive for Pakistan, with angry Arab officials talking of reprisals. It's seen as "betrayal" by Pakistan given the fact it has received billions of dollars in dole-outs from Arab states. UAE Minister Anwar Gargash warned Pakistan of paying a heavy price for its "ambiguous stand" on Yemen.

Mr Modi effortlessly stepped into this Arab-Pakistan breach by aggressively reaching out to Arab states and using it to expand India's clout and undercut that of Pakistan. His hosts happily played along.

The UAE-India communique left no one in doubt about its intended target: "The two nations condemn efforts, including by states, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries. They also deplore efforts by countries to use terrorism to pursue their aims."

If that wasn't clear enough, addressing Indian expats in Dubai, Mr Modi launched a blistering attack on Pakistan: "Today a message has gone out from here to the world. Those who are involved in terrorism deserve to be punished."

If the UAE visit was a strategic move on the diplomatic chessboard against Pakistan, Mr Modi's Saudi sojourn earlier this month is nothing short of a stroke of genius. Saudi Arabia is not just the largest oil producer and leader of the Arab-Islamic world, it is a close ally and a key donor of Pakistan. In 2014, the Saudis gifted US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) to prop up Pakistan's economy.

That is why the exceptionally warm welcome accorded to Mr Modi in the birthplace of Islam surprised everyone, including Pakistan. In a clear snub to Islamabad, the Saudis conferred their highest civilian honour on him, ignoring his past tainted by the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that killed more than 2,000 Muslims.

India and Saudi Arabia signed five agreements, broadening their economic partnership and investing in massive infrastructure projects. Riyadh is the largest supplier of oil to India while Delhi happens to be the largest trading partner of Riyadh after China.

What was remarkable in the Riyadh Declaration was the new focus on military and strategic ties, including intelligence sharing and cooperation against terrorism.

India has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism and Kashmiri militants and the declaration pointedly said: "The two leaders called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states."

This marks a strategic shift in Arab relations with India and Pakistan. India-Arab ties have always been defined by Pakistan, with Muslim states routinely backing Pakistan on the question of Kashmir, against India. This is changing fast.

Nor is India wooing just the Arab states; it is reaching out to Pakistan's neighbours - Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries - virtually encircling Islamabad from all sides.

India has been building the Chabahar port in Iran overlooking the Gulf. This is close to the Iran-Pakistan border and only 72km from Pakistan's strategic Gwadar port, developed by China. Gwadar is part of the US$46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that allows Beijing direct access to the Gulf and is considered a game changer, generating millions of jobs and economic opportunities.

The Chabahar port in Iran - India's answer to Gwadar - allows Delhi to bypass Pakistan to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia using a sea-land route.

So India is closing in on Pakistan from all sides, isolating it one country at a time. Whatever Mr Modi's troubles at home and his domestic agenda, his foreign policy appears to be shaping up well, especially against Pakistan.


  • Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer and former opinion editor of Khaleej Times.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2016, with the headline 'India, Pakistan and the new Great Game'. Print Edition | Subscribe