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India to rely on past for present West Asia policy

Indrani Bagchi

Friday 12 November 2004, by BAGCHI*Indrani

NEW DELHI: India enjoyed a special relationship with the departed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and though India’s unwavering support to the Palestinian cause transcended the personality of Arafat, India’s unique distinction of being the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestinian state may have had a lot to do with him.

Arafat’s visits to India were frequent and friendly and over the years India’s West Asia policy was distinguished by a "pro-Arab" tilt.

This did not mean that India played any particular role in the West Asia crisis as it evolved or that India even wanted to play a role, but it did mean that whenever Arafat wanted a show of hands from his global peregrinations, India was a ready friend.

But even Arafat was not willing to let India get into the West Asia game, which was partly due to the fact that until 1992, India had no truck with Israel.

For India, Arafat was "a towering personality who fought selflessly for the Palestinian people" and remained, until the end, the most enduring symbol of the struggle. It was during the early days of Arafat’s confinement in Ramallah that India went on record to register its unhappiness with US and Israeli plans to isolate him — India believed that demonising Arafat would be counter-productive.

In a post-Arafat situation, will India’s policy on West Asia change?

Unlikely. The support to a Palestinian state will continue, and in a UPA government, the rhetorical volume will certainly be ratcheted up, as the UPA distances itself from the perception that India may have "diluted" its support to the cause. But realistically, that’s as far as it goes.

With the US and EU crowding the West Asia scene, there is no space or scope for an Indian role, and even in India’s most passionate espousal of the Palestinian cause, there has been no expectation of a larger role.

Besides, India’s strategic relationship with Israel has acquired so many dimensions that it is unlikely to be able to play a zero-sum game in that region.

India has also not built any institutional relations with Arafat’s successors, either Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or the new president Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). In 2000, as foreign minister Jaswant Singh had visited the West Bank and Gaza and met the second rung leadership — but that’s as far as it went.

In the present situation, embedded in India’s hope for a peaceful transition lies a concern about the growth of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both purely terrorist organisations, which have succeeded in giving the essentially nationalist and secular Palestinian struggle an Islamist face. That would not only complicate matters, but could also have longer implications for any future Palestinian state.

Israeli leaders have reiterated their hope that India could use its good offices with the Palestinian Authority to appeal for moderation, particularly in a multilateral setting. Since India continues to vote against the Israeli position at the UN, it remains a note of dissonance between the two countries. This isn’t about to change either.

As Sonia Gandhi, Natwar Singh and a high-profile delegation heads for Cairo for Arafat’s funeral on Friday, India’s support to a Palestinian state will be clear. The friendship will continue.

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