By K.P. Nayar
This is a moment that Manmohan Singh has waited for. Not for eight years as prime minister, but for much longer — for 18 years, in fact, since the time he was finance minister in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government.
As a caravan of Indian ministers and officials prepare to travel to Washington next week, led by S.M. Krishna, the external affairs minister, those among them with institutional memory and perspicacity are preparing to draw vicariously on Singh’s quest since 1994 to add a third party to India’s engagement of the United States of America. That third party is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In 1992, barely a year after becoming prime minister, Rao established full diplomatic relations with Israel and thereby strengthened support for what has become one of the pillars of Indian diplomacy: a strong friendship with Washington. Without Israel and the Jewish lobby in the US, Indo-US ties would still have grown, but they would have been bereft of the substance that both countries today advertise as a major plus on their foreign policy scorecard. Nor would India have been in a position to negotiate with the US on critical issues with an advantage. New Delhi’s capacity to swing the American Jewish lobby into supporting it has been a critical factor in determining the outcome of many negotiations, especially on Capitol Hill, in recent years, although both sides would like to pretend that India and the US are sovereign entities independently charting their destinies.
Two years after J.N. Dixit, then foreign secretary, pulled off a diplomatic feat with Israel on Rao’s instructions that was akin to Henry Kissinger’s secret outreach to China during Richard Nixon’s presidency, Singh insisted on making a trip to Riyadh as finance minister. It was not an initiative that came easily. Dixit was on the threshold of his retirement when Singh first floated the idea of a visit to Saudi Arabia, and Rao, who had been holding charge of foreign affairs since the inglorious exit of Madhavsinh Solanki in March 1992, had handed over the baton to a cautious Dinesh Singh, whose incapacity had been compounded by a stroke.
Iran was the country of choice in the Gulf region for Indian foreign-policymakers and strategic thinkers in the early to mid-1990s, encouraged by Rao’s success in weaning Tehran away from a long friendship with Islamabad that thrived during the Shah’s regime and survived during the first decade of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. Sceptics told Manmohan Singh that he was unwise in flirting with Riyadh, which was then viewed in New Delhi — but not in Washington — as a promoter of what subsequently came to be known worldwide as the Taliban and al Qaeda as well as their proxies, progenies and siblings. Few people now remember that one of those who encouraged Singh’s outreach to Saudi Arabia in those days was Frank G. Wisner, then US Ambassador in New Delhi. In conversations with Indian policymakers, Wisner made a distinction between ‘good’ Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and ‘bad’ ones, citing Iran as a prime example of the latter. That continues to be the view in Washington of both Riyadh and Tehran respectively.
A South Block official, and one of India’s best Arabists, who extensively briefed Singh before he undertook his journey to Riyadh, told the finance minister of a conversation he had with the Saudi Arabian deputy defence minister at that time. The Saudis wanted a defence pact with India, but consistent with the style of the kingdom’s diplomacy, they would not even broach it formally because the initiative would only fall on deaf ears in New Delhi.
Eighteen years have elapsed since that conversation. The Saudis waited all this while before they finally opened the subject in February this year with A.K. Antony when he was in Saudi Arabia on a landmark first-visit by an Indian defence minister to the kingdom. A memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation that was agreed in principle between Antony and the Saudi defence minister, Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, will lead to unprecedented visits from the kingdom to India’s defence industries and efforts to jointly explore military production between the two sides. Antony was on his way to Saudi Arabia by a special aircraft when an urgent message was transmitted on board that King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al Saud would like to receive him. It was a rare gesture on the part of the monarch towards a minister from a country that is not an ally or a protector of the House of Saud.
The Saudis had done their homework well. Shortly before Antony embarked on his trip to Riyadh, King Abdullah dispatched his long-time intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, for an assessment of what was realistically possible in strategic relations with India. The request to Antony for a meeting with the King was deliberately conveyed to the defence minister’s aircraft so that there would be an element of surprise for the Indians and the meeting would be genuine. This way, the Indian bureaucracy had no time to whitewash or sugar-coat the high-level interaction. Antony sought to buy time for what was to be his most important, albeit unscheduled, meeting. But King Abdullah put paid to that effort with a suggestion that he would receive Antony immediately upon arrival, with the defence minister driving straight to the royal palace from the airport.
Neither India nor Saudi Arabia have yet revealed that at that meeting, King Abdullah offered to replace the entire supply of oil that India buys from Iran. Antony’s nickname as defence minister could well be ‘Cautious’. So he typically reacted with caution to that offer. It is to the credit of policymakers on Raisina Hill, the seat of power in New Delhi, that India has not yet given any categorical response to the Saudi offer.
Many of the same sceptics who opposed Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 1994 have cautioned members of key cabinet committees that are seized of the offer that King Abdullah is acting on the advice of Israel and the US, both countries seeking to cripple Iran’s oil trade. But in reality, the Saudi offer is a logical corollary to Singh’s meetings in Saudi Arabia as finance minister 18 years ago.
In a theme which the prime minister finessed and expanded during King Abdullah’s visit to India in 2006 and his own visit to Riyadh two years ago, Singh told the Saudis in 1994 that bilateral relations will only improve if both sides had an economic stake in each other. He specifically pointed out that Saudi Arabia is the only significant Gulf state which has no oil, fertilizer or petrochemical investments in India. It was inevitable, given the logic of this argument, that at some point the Saudis would make a grand gesture of the kind they did to Antony. The sanctions on Iran’s oil trade merely provided an opportunity: it was a case of the right thing at the right time for the Saudis.
The Americans know all this, especially Carlos Pascual, the state department’s coordinator of international energy affairs, who was in New Delhi a few weeks ago for an on-the-spot assessment of India’s energy trade in the current global flux over sanctions on Iran. They are puzzled over India’s intentions, especially in the light of their experience of how India got away with a lot of things on the nuclear deal, which Washington never intended to grant New Delhi.
Armed with the confidence that they now have the Saudis on their side, India is playing the Iran card in the run-up to next week’s bilateral strategic dialogue in Washington to get what it wants from the Obama administration before it slips entirely into election mode. Unfortunately, because sections of the Indian society have little confidence in themselves, an impression is being created that New Delhi is caving in to Washington on sanctions against Iran. Hopefully, next week — being dubbed as “India week” in Washington — will prove that in reality, New Delhi cleverly played the Saudis, the Iranians and the Americans against one another to extract the maximum from all of them.