Being proactive in West Asia

We need, more proactively, to manage relations with the new political elites while also working with a wider set of actors in West Asia

No revolution is a tea party. Not even the American Revolution, famously catalysed by the “Boston tea party”. This grim truth was hammered home by the brutal killing of United States ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues in Libya.

Shocked by the Libyans’ ingratitude to their liberators, Americans are yet again asking themselves: why do they hate us? We can leave this puzzle — rooted in deep-seated assumptions about American exceptionalism and benevolence — for the Americans to crack. India should focus on what this
reprehensible act portends for the region and for its own
policy.
The transformative capacity of democratic upheaval is undeniable. But it is naïve to assume that the ensuing transformations will always be benign. Revolutions that begin as broad-based movements are prone to being captured by the most organised elements. These are usually the most ruthless ones as well. This elementary historical observation is obscured by the more recent and uplifting experience of the “velvet” revolutions in Eastern Europe. The Arab Spring is unlikely to follow their
trajectory.
For starters, the most organised forces thrown up by the churning in West Asia are political Islamist parties. Long suppressed by their former authoritarian rulers, these outfits have tapped into the popular mood. Even where they have won elections, their appreciation of democracy has not ranged much beyond the ballot box. To the more radical elements, the institutional casing of democracy seems a straitjacket. Far easier to keep the pot boiling by demagoguery and sectarian appeals. In societies of such diverse ethnic and sectarian mix this is a recipe for
instability.
The consequences are already here to see — not just in Libya, but in Iraq and Syria among other places. The oft-repeated expectation that these countries might end up like Turkey — compounded of moderate Islamism, democracy, economic openness — betrays ignorance of the modernising legacy of Ataturk. The countries experiencing the Arab Spring don’t have such favourable background conditions.
Further, the hold on power of these newly ascendant Islamist parties is unlikely to remain unchallenged. The military, intelligence and bureaucratic complexes that underpinned the old regimes will be difficult to tame.
They will, after a period of recovery of nerve, begin to wield the power that flows from their entrenched position. They will also seek to leverage their ties with external players. To undertake a range of activities, from disbursement of aid to drone strikes, the great powers will have to keep their links with these actors in good repair.
This is not to suggest that a counter-revolution is on the cards. Merely that the crack between the new governments and remnants of the old regimes may widen into a crevasse. In any event, this is likely to exacerbate the teething problems faced by these states and
undermine the prospects for stability.
Then there is question of the Arab monarchies. These countries have been quick to draw a line between the popular awakening in the region and the loyal tranquillity of their own populations. This disingenuous distinction has been upheld by the West. And this in the face of blatant repression in places like Bahrain. Vocal minorities in these countries are readily dismissed as stooges of Iran. The support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the most extremist outfits in places like Syria is assumed to advance the cause of freedom. Indeed, when the Gulf Cooperation Council parades itself as the protagonist of Arab democracy, one can well imagine the future of this project.
The last, and certainly not the least, source of instability is the role of external powers. The US and its allies have repeatedly intervened in the region, no doubt with the best interests of the peoples in mind. As in Libya, though, the beneficiaries of these efforts seem unable to fathom their benign intentions. Besides, these interventions have usually ended up empowering autocratic despots, authoritarian democrats or strident Islamists. Following the American exit from Iraq and the lessening dependence of the West on oil from the region, one might have hoped that external interventions were a thing of the past. But the reduction in these burdens is tempting these powers to experiment with newer forms of intervention-lite.
What do these trends imply for Indian policy? West Asia is likely to be in throes of upheaval for the near future. These could take the shape of a round of popular risings in the Gulf monarchies, escalation of sectarian violence, increased friction between elected governments and other agencies and the possibility of the pot being stirred by external intervention. Whether singly or in combination, these will impinge on India’s core interests in the region: six million expatriate workers and energy security. In dealing with these challenges, New Delhi cannot afford to operate in a crisis-management mode as it has done in the past. We need, more proactively, to manage relations with the new political elites while also working with a wider set of actors in the region.
Even as it navigates the tricky shoals of contemporary West Asian politics, New Delhi should not assume that the older problems in the region have been phased out. The idea of a state for the Palestinians, for instance, seldom receives the kind of attention that it should. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent visit to Delhi underlined the extent to which India’s stance on this issue has become symbolic.
We pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird. Looking ahead, this may well prove costly for India.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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