SEEMA MUSTAFA | 30 APRIL, 2020
‘Islamophobia’ Strains India Ties with US, Gulf - Jaishankar Works the Ropes
After the White House and US President Donald Trump ‘unfollowed’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter, one could not help but think of Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and what a tizzy this must have thrown him into. As Jaishankar the Ministry of External Affairs senior diplomat handling the US-India civil nuclear energy agreement under the Manmohan Singh government was a man dedicated to improving relations with the US at any cost. He was as the blue eyed boy of then PM Singh not just passionate but visibly anxious to get the deal through, with opposition from a section of the media and the Opposition (that by the way included the Bharatiya Janata Party) at the time seeming to anger him. He finally did manage to get the project through ---ironically under the BJP government led by Narendra Modi.
So now that relations between Washington and New Delhi are clearly not on the same ‘we love you’ trajectory that Jaishankar was credited with, the Foreign Minister must be holding his head in his hands out of public view of course. The shipment of hydroxychloroquine did not work clearly and the Potus handle withdrawal is clearly as big a signal as it was deemed to be when it started to follow the Indian PM. The one cannot be without the other even in this Minister’s book of diplomacy, and clearly all communication lines with Washington DC must be blipping at the edges because of overuse through the tense hours.
That this comes after a statement by the US Commission on International Freedom expressed concern over India’s record stating, “In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault.” And it demanded that India be placed in the US State Department list of “countries of particular concern” to invite sanctions if the records were not improved.
The report spoke of CAA and NRC, Kashmir, the north-east Delhi violence and the police, mentioning derogatory language used by senior BJP leaders including Home Minister Amit Shah and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava rejected the report with, "Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels.”"We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly," he said in a statement. “
Currently nine countries China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are on the US list. The Commission now has recommended that India be added along with Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam for their religious intolerance record. This is a first ever for India.
An astute diplomat Jaishankar has worked hard over his career, to improve relations between India and the US and the Gulf. He also was also an influencer in Singh’s Look East policy but under the BJP government the focus returned to Look West, starting with the Gulf countries and sweeping across the oceans for a direct reach out to the US, and Trump.
PM Modi in his first five years had spent considerable time travelling the globe, and then moving into a more specific although perhaps not very nuanced foreign policy with the spotlights fixed on the US, and closer home the Gulf. There was a continuum in foreign policy between Manmohan Singh and Modi insofar as the US and the Gulf was concerned. PM Modi, always more dramatic than the taciturn Singh, made impressive visits to these countries, felicitated with awards and ceremonies.
The shift there starting with a Twitter storm initiated by Gulf Royals and intellectuals ---all intermixed really---against the assault on Indian muslims thus came as a shock to New Delhi. And despite denials and clarifications from here, has continued unabated. Strong tweets accompanied with reminders of India’s democratic ethos made it clear that the Gulf had turned with India’s foreign establishments “Et tu Brutus” carrying ironical legitimacy.
Interestingly, in keeping with the pragmatic foreign policy brought in by former PM Singh --pragmatic being an euphemism for monetary ---Indonesia and Malaysia that had first expressed concern about the assaults on minorities in India had been strongly countered. Both diplomatically and ieconomically. However, the Gulf carrying jobs and money together in a lethal combination seems to have evoked an opposite reaction with PM Modi wishing Muslims a happy Ramzan and calling for unity and brotherhood. And RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat echoing similar sentiments and expressing displeasure over Islamophobic statements.
However, despite Jaishankar’s efforts to rebuild bridges, and reach out personally to Gulf leaders the tensions remain. OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) issued a statement urging India to take steps to prevent Islamophobia. The organisation condemned “the recent and alarming violence against Muslims in India, resulting in the death and injury of innocent people and the arson and vandalism of mosques and Muslim-owned properties.” All Gulf countries have joined the tirade against India, either officially, or through the power elite on social media.
Former senior Indian diplomats said that the worrying aspect was that “so far no one seems to be listening to India’s denials.” Potus took a unilateral decision to ‘unfollow’ PM Modi, and the Gulf used the social media to launch a major attack with the leaders either remaining silent or making it clear they were no mood to rein in the power elite threats to deport Indians, and taking hard economic decisions if New Delhi did not adequately protect its minorities from attack.
The relations built carefully are unravelling, and not on a foreign policy issue but on the treatment of minorities within the country. Leaders in both the US and the Gulf countries are responding to their own internal pressures, and it remains to be seen how the situation is salvaged given the fact that it runs counter to current domestic policy insofar as India’s minorities are concerned. Jaishankar, an astute diplomat by any standards, has his work cut out for him.
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