Deconstructing Modi’s Saudi dalliance

(Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Argentina, November 29, 2018)

The state visit on February 19-20 by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to India at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an unusual event insofar as it was not scheduled through the diplomatic channel. Rather, it was divinely ordained. 

That gives the event a larger-than-life optic. Both MBS and Modi are besieged leaders — although for different reasons. Both have a serious ‘image’ problem to contend with and are desperately trying to overcome it. Neither can be quite certain as to what lies in the womb of time — whether their careers will face a sudden death or not. Detractors and opponents are relentlessly attacking. And both have chinks in their armour, which makes them highly vulnerable. All this makes them an odd couple on the world stage. 

The visit to India is important for MBS as it helps him display his regional and international stature and to proclaim to the world audience that he has successfully put behind the controversy over the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi in October. After all, India is the land of Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence. MBS is also visiting Islamabad, but New Delhi is a class apart in regional and international politics. (It will be interesting to see whether Modi will also receive MBS at the tarmac of Delhi airport.) 

At any rate, MBS is assured of a warm welcome in India. Modi made a big gesture of goodwill by calling on MBS during the G20 summit in Argentina (30th November -1st December 2018). And that was at a time when MBS was regarded as a burnt-out case and the air was thick with rumours that the prince was fighting for survival and the Western world was braying for his blood. 

Modi signalled that he couldn’t care less. Modi flagged that India was a friend and will remain forever a friend through the vicissitude of time — and more so will remain a friend the prince could count on when he was badly in need of reliable friendships. It was an audacious, risky gamble on Modi’s part, but he brilliantly pulled it off. 

It has established a special chemistry between MBS and Modi. To be sure, MBS will show his gratitude to Modi (and to India) during the upcoming visit. The Saudi-Indian relations are entering a qualitatively new level. The MEA press release hinted that Indian expectations are high.

For Modi, this may well be his last waltz on the diplomatic arena before he hits the campaign trail on what promises to be a bruising electoral battle, which has existential overtones for him. A hugely productive outcome of the visit by MBS will underscore Modi’s diplomatic achievement in injecting dynamism into the relationship with Saudi Arabia and in furthering India’s national interests. 

The Saudi relationship has a huge resonance within India for a variety of reasons. Therefore, the very fact that the Saudi regime holds Modi in high esteem conveys a big signal to the Indian audience, which helps mitigate the stigma of him being ‘anti-Muslim’. After all, if the Custodian of the Holy Mosques harbours warm feelings toward Modi, how can he be possibly branded as ‘anti-Muslim’ or ‘Hindu fundamentalist’? 

To be sure, MBS’ visit will put the secularist Hindus in India and the Indian Muslim in a quandary. The point is, MBS is reciprocating Modi’s overpowering gesture in Argentina by scheduling his visit to India in the run-up to the 2019 poll and that is invested with much symbolism. 

Indeed, it is a paradox that India’s relations with the Muslim Middle East have been the single biggest foreign policy success of the Hindu nationalist government headed by Modi. Even more so when it is also taken into account that the Modi government keeps relationships in the Muslim Middle East brilliantly, overcoming the schisms that wrack regional politics in that part of India’s extended neighbourhood. 

It is no small matter that India’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been on a rising trajectory under Modi’s watch and, more importantly, both Riyadh and Tehran are courting India and are keen to expand the partnership with India. In fact, exactly a week after MBS’ visit, India is celebrating the ‘Chabahar Day’ with Iran. 

In political terms, isn’t there is a curious similarity fundamentally between the Indian and Saudi practices of the ideology of cultural nationalism? The fact remains that the Modi government and the Saudi regime have uses of their respective religious establishments in their respective domestic politics, especially for buttressing the political legitimacy, but on the other hand, their national policies as such, especially the foreign policies, are largely impervious to it and not buffeted by it. Modi’s bonhomie with the Saudi prince testifies to the chilling truth that Hindu fundamentalism and Wahhabi fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin — a form of purposive gratification.