In recent weeks, India has been embroiled in diplomatic disputes with the Middle-East countries after the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) spokesperson was accused of making anti-Islamic and derogatory remarks on Muslim Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH). Dispute has erupted in the Middle-East as elsewhere across the world over the controversial remarks made by BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma and her colleague during a television debate. Iran, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE among others have responded strongly by summoning India’s ambassadors following which Indian government has taken several steps to calm the situation. The Gulf nations have also called for boycotting Indian goods in line with fast-growing anti-India sentiment from within. Different stores have covered Indian products with polythene and put up boycott posters. Some of the pictures on social media show Indian products being removed from shops and thrown into the dustbins. Meanwhile, some Hindu extremist groups, in retaliation, have called for boycotting a few Gulf airlines. The reality, however, is that India is facing heavy backlash. Many Indians may not know the fact that the country’s economy is heavily dependent on the Gulf nations. The Narendra Modi-led Indian government has been shaken by the instantly-hit oil and labour market in Middle-East, which remain the driving force of the economy. However, this isn’t all! It is apprehended that India is going to bear a huge brunt of the backlash. Analysts are of the view that the diplomatic repercussion might damage the relations between India and its oil-rich Gulf friends.
What led to such reaction?
Many think that the Middle-East countries’ long-running protests seem unprecedented this time. One of the reasons for this perhaps is that the relations between India and the Arab nations – especially in the Gulf region have improved tremendously over the last two decades. Another reason is that these Gulf countries do not comment on India’s internal affairs usually. In recent years, several Muslims were beaten to death in the name of protecting cows. But in those cases, there has been no public outcry or criticism from the Gulf countries condemning the country’s ruling party BJP. Analysts say that while religious reasons remain the main reason for the sheer exception this time around, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played a key role with regard to the angry reactions as well as calls for a boycott of Indian products.
While there has been no public outcry in Arab World as people in those countries have not protested publicly against the anti-Muslim remarks and incidents taken place in India in recent years like the ban on beef and the cases of Muslim-beatings over suspicion of carrying meat, and the ban on hijab in schools and colleges; but they expressed their resentment on social media. Once again, the first reaction in the Arab world was on social media platforms after the BJP spokesperson’s insult to the Prophet of Islam and another BJP spokesperson’s tweet. After that, the governments in the Gulf countries started responding one by one in the face of the pressure of the people.
Talmiz Ahmad, who was a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, said Arab leaders had been forced to take a public stand as the controversial remarks spread through social media in the Gulf countries. “The remarks were made about the Prophet of Islam and his family. We know the importance of Prophet Muhammad in the Muslim world and the Muslim community will not accept any insulting remarks on him. The BJP has crossed this red line this time,” he observed.
Analysts and observers are of the opinion that the BJP since coming to power in 2014 has been trying to establish religious divisions deliberately thanks to its various anti-Muslim and anti-Islam moves, actions and narratives. At the centre and even at state-level, many leaders and activists of various extremist Hindu groups affiliated to the BJP continued to make statements targeting Muslims, their faith, and livelihood, which led to a number of violent killings in India over the past eight years. According to a report by New York-based human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, at least 44 people, were killed in India in the two-and-a-half years between May 2015 and December 2018. The trial of these killings has not progressed much and the BJP leaders have directly and indirectly defended these attacks. Experts believed and expressed concern that if it goes on then India will soon face a sharp reaction from the country’s major trading partner – the Gulf countries.
Former Indian diplomat Krishan Chander Singh in an interview said, “This is a reaction to the BJP’s anti-Muslim and anti-Islam politics over the years. There is no reason to think that Muslim countries will be acting like a stupid. Islamic countries were watching with concern as to what was happening with the hapless Muslims in India. Such an event was long due. All that was needed is a spark. When you attack their Prophet, it is an attack on not merely one or two Muslim countries, but the entire Muslim Ummah.”
The question is, how much is the BJP government taking into account the response of the Arab countries now? Concerned quarters think that this time the BJP government has been shaken as the Gulf countries have major implications and significance in Indian economy.
Importance of Middle East to India
India has had good relations with the Gulf countries over the course of last few decades. As India maintains good relations with Iran, so does the gas-rich country Qatar and some other Gulf nations. There are two main reasons for India’s good relations with the Gulf. India is dependent on these countries for oil, gas and trade. A large number of Indian workers also work there. Remittance sums sent by these expatriates are one of the major drivers of the Indian economy.
India’s trade volume with Middle-East countries
Indian embassy in Riyadh said India has the largest trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Notable among the countries are United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. These countries have been described by Riyadh as “emerging as a major trading partner of India and have huge potential as India’s investment partners.” Among the Gulf countries, the UAE is India’s largest trading partner. According to the latest figures from the country’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, UAE is the third largest market for India after the United States and China. Trade with the UAE accounts for more than 7 percent of India’s total trade.
According to the latest data from FY 2021-22, India exported $28 billion worth of goods and services to the Gulf countries. On the other hand, the UAE owes a total of $45 billion from India over exports. The figures from India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry further show that India’s total bilateral trade in FY 2021-22 with the GCC was about $154 billion. India’s trade deficit with the region is not small. There are about $67 billion worth of dues, which are the sole responsibility of India. About 60 per cent of India’s total imports from Gulf countries were crude oil and natural gas. Other products included diamonds, gold and polymers. On the other hand, Indian exports include customised jewellery, refined petroleum, rice, garment products, cars and broadcasting equipment.
How much remittance does India get from Gulf region?
According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, more than 13 million Indians work abroad. And if the number of Indian descents including those who have acquired citizenship of other countries are added, then this number is more than 40 million. Of the 13 million expatriate Indians, most work in the Gulf countries. A total of 04 million Indians work in the UAE alone. There are also 03 million more non-resident Indians (NRIs) working in Saudi Arabia with 1.3 million more in Kuwait. According to the World Bank, India is now on top of the world in terms of receiving remittance from abroad. In 2020 alone, about $83.15 billion in remittance came to India. Expatriates living in those Gulf countries provided the lion’s share of India’s total remittances. According to the Reserve Bank of India, the total remittance in 2017 was 69 billion, of which 50 percent was sent by the expatriates in the GCC countries.
India’s economy for these reasons is heavily dependent on the Gulf countries, said Michael Kugelman, Director of the Asia programme at the Wilson Centre, a US think tank. He highlighted that the Middle East is very important for India due to strategic reasons. India is heavily dependent on the Gulf region for its economic needs. These include fuel, oil and gas, and remittances. According to him, “Two-thirds of India’s remittances come from the Gulf countries. They are also working in the infrastructure sector. In recent years, we have seen India sign agreements with a number of Gulf countries, especially the UAE, to work in this sector. The Gulf countries are a major hub for India’s trade relations. For these reasons, it was imperative for Delhi to act swiftly on the responses of those countries,” he observed.
Can India survive without the Middle-East?
Although the main buyers and sellers of Indian imports and exports are the Gulf countries, opposing the Middle-East by the BJP followers merely for political gain will make the country economically more isolated. Bangladesh and Vietnam are complementary to the products that India exports to the Middle East. In this competitive world of trade no one waits for anyone. Again, as long as this motor-run world advances, there will be demand for oil in the Middle East. If the Gulf does not sell oil to India, the Indian economy will come to a standstill. On the other hand, if the Gulf nations do not import goods from India, they will not have any major problem. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan along with a few African countries, which have huge workers in the region, could complement the Indian workforce in the Middle East. In order to cope with this situation, BJP must not only bow down, but also have to meet the big conditions of the Gulf. Now it remains to be seen how the ruling BJP acts with regard to the ongoing tension prompted by recent derogatory actions.
India goes for damage control
The Indian government went into damage control – thereby suspending its spokesperson who made the disparaging comments and expelling another leader for his tweets in defence of the BJP spokesperson. The Indian Foreign Ministry also deputed its diplomatic corps in Muslim-majority countries to explain the government position that India respected all religions and the derogatory remarks did not come from the government, but were made by ‘fringe elements’. Critics, however, said that the BJP could not be trusted on its word as anti-Muslim rhetoric is central to the politics of the Indian nationalist party promoting hindutva. In a statement, the BJP said it condemns insults to any religion or any religious figure. “Insulting or demeaning any community or religion is against the BJP’s ideology.” The two BJP leaders were also learned to have apologised publicly.
What could be BJP’s strategy after this diplomatic fallout?
Can these activities be seen as a sign of embracing change for good inside the BJP? BJP has built a very strong ideological position in India over the last eight years based on religion-based politics. There is a concerning scepticism amongst India’s secular intellectuals.Senior Indian journalist and columnist Smita Gupta said, “I don’t think there will be any fundamental change in the BJP, because then there will be no BJP. They can and will take any approach to win the elections. Some strategic steps may be seen. Statements like ‘We care for all’ will be heard for a while, but the BJP will not change.”
But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also known to be pragmatic when comes to diplomacy and economy. It can be noted that the influential Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have never protested despite the growing plight of Muslims in India over the past eight years. Instead, the relations of these Arab countries with the BJP government have become stronger during the period. Even after imposing strict sanctions on Kashmir for a long time, these Arab Muslim countries, like the rest of the world, have not said a word, which has undoubtedly made the section of BJP more confident and tone deaf. Also, the leaderships across the gulf regions are also changing hands. The new generation of leaders are also pragmatic about the geopolitical leverage of their strong economy.
Whilst India itself is the world’s fifth largest economy as we have seen her dependence on gulf countries are also significant. A strong economy has been a significant part of BJP’s election manifesto. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always been able to play a diplomatic balancing game while keeping his ideology intact. It is clear from the outrageous incident that some lines have been crossed with insulting the most revered person to the entire Muslim world. BJP leadership must take lesson that its politics is also dependent on economy and foreign policy. If votes are behind its populist strategy, then they will dry up once the economy is hit.