Optics is as integral to physics as it is to diplomacy. For a normal eye, the least distance of distinct vision is 25 centimetres; hold an object closer to the eye than this distance and the image formed will be blurred. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government appears to suffer from this aberration, if recent developments in West Asia are anything to go by.
The images of Indian nationals trapped in the civil war-torn Yemen being rescued are instructive in this regard. First, they speak about the vulnerability of the Indian nation on account of a large number of its citizens (over six million at last count) living and working in West Asia. (This vast human capital is not necessarily a bad idea though; it can be as good a leverage as any that South Block could employ to further India’s interests in its extended neighbourhood stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf and beyond.) We have seen similar images of the evacuation of Indians from Iraq in 2014; Egypt and Libya in 2011; and Lebanon in 2006. Unfortunately for New Delhi, West Asia seeps into the public discourse or animates the Indian consciousness only in times of crisis with the consequence that India’s response to unfolding events is Pavlovian at best.
Second, any crisis in West Asia can potentially torpedo India’s growth story, hurt its economic revival and also have a Domino effect on energy security (read oil imports), security, investor confidence and markets. As National Security Adviser Ajit Doval recently said, India’s external environment was getting highly vitiated. Although one might think what is happening in Iraq, Syria or Yemen was far away from India, to borrow his words, it may not be as far or as distant as it looks to be. “The threat is real, the threat is imminent,” he was quoted as saying. And yet here, too, Prime Minister Modi’s Government seems to be in the grip of inertia. This, when he has spoken of his desire to pursue a Link West Policy in tandem with India’s longstanding Look East Policy.
At a time when India must be alive to the changing geopolitical landscape in West Asia with far-reaching implications for India and Indian interests in the region, including, but not limited to, Afghanistan, what the Indian public is fed are visuals of Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Reuven Rivlin of Israel in Singapore and his Twitter posts to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. With the exception of Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani’s recent visit to India or Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s infrequent visits to West Asia (she has travelled to Oman, UAE and Bahrain), the Government is accused of doing precious little to correct the perception about India in the region.
The launch of the Saudi Arabia-led air strikes on the Houthi hideouts in Yemen affected the financial markets from Wall Street to Dalal Street and caused a surge in oil prices. Although Yemen contributes only a minuscule percentage to the global oil production, its geographic location gives rise to anxieties in Riyadh and other capitals around the world: Any spillover effect of the civil war in Yemen and/or the fallout of the Saudi air-strikes (leave alone a ground offensive which is not off the table yet) on the Bab al-Mandab Strait (which means Gateway of anguish or tears; so called because of the legend attached to the perils of navigating the waters there) which links the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, can disturb the passage of oil tankers. Along with the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, Bab al-Mandab constitutes some of the global choke points for oil shipments.
With the Saudi Arabia-Iran regional rivalry and the Sunni-Shia sectarianism dominating the strategic landscape in the region, the Saudi-led coalition comprising Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with the exception of Oman fears that Iran could seek to expand its presence beyond the Strait of Hormuz and into the Bab al-Mandab, too. That, coupled with the Saudis’ existential fear of being encircled by Iran or its proxies from Iraq and Lebanon to Syria and now Yemen, was provocation enough for the new Saudi ruler King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud to launch a military offensive on the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam.