In the little over three years that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been in power, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has visited only one Islamic country—Afghanistan—out of a total of 22 state visits he has made. Experts, allies of the UPA and even some members of the Congress—Singh’s party and the single largest constituent of the UPA—are worried that this has to do with India’s growing proximity to the US.
In his six years in office, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited four Islamic countries out of the 30 countries he went to.
The neglect of West Asia, where most major Islamic countries are concentrated, is against the government’s stated policy.
A file picture of PM’s 2005 visit to Afghanistan
The National Common Minimum Programme, a sort of guideline for governance that the UPA adopted after it came to power, says that India’s traditional ties with West Asia would “be given a fresh thrust”.
“There is no political reason why the PM may or may not have gone to Islamic countries. In the Congress cabinet, the Prime Minister is one among equals. We have empowered the foreign affairs minister to take key bilateral visits with or without the Prime Minister,” said an All-India Congress Committee member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), who did not wish to be identified, said the present administration has “minimized travel and maximized interaction.” “You’re reading too much into (visiting) Islamic versus non-Islamic nations,” he said. “Every time a foreign visit is proposed to the Prime Minister, he rigorously examines how much the visit will achieve before accepting it,” he added.
Singh’s office is yet to respond to an invitation from Iran as well. The invitation was extended in November 2006. By that time, India had twice voted in favour of a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) that said Iran had not complied with its nuclear safeguard obligations, the same stance that the US took.
“There are very good ties between India and Iran and we are waiting for a reply from the Indian side on our invitation,” said Iran’s economic counsellor in New Delhi, Bardia Navaee Roodsari.
“It is astonishing how successive Indian prime ministers after Indira Gandhi have tended to ignore relations with the six Arab Gulf countries, who provide 70% of our oil requirement and where 3.8 million Indians reside,” said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan.
After Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956 and Indira Gandhi in 1982, no Indian prime minister has ever visited Saudi Arabia, the largest supplier of oil to the country. However, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year.
According to Parthasarathy, the trend is even more difficult to grasp given that in countries in West Asia, business ties and other relations depend on personal rapport “to a very large extent”.
Some politicians said India’s hands-off-West Asia approach is prompted partially by pressures associated with its growing closeness to the US.
“Particularly after the nuclear deal with the US, some countries are an automatic casualty for India’s foreign policy,” said S.Q.R. Ilyas, a member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Jamat-e-Islami. And even as the Left Front spars with the UPA on the civil nuclear deal with the US, it has accused the latter of a foreign policy tilt in favour of the US.
“India should develop friendly ties with all nations including the US, not at the cost of other friendly countries,” said A.B. Bardhan, general secretary, Communist Party of India.
“There are some who are overawed with the US and have contempt for countries like Iran, Iraq, Palestine and so forth. We cannot allow such people to decide our (India’s) agenda,” he added in a written statement attacking the UPA’s economic and foreign policy in the first week of September.
A senior UPA cabinet minister was equally harsh. “The Indian PM has not visited West Asia and Africa (with the exception of South Africa). What does it tell the world? We should shake off this American domination of our foreign policy,” he said.
Singh has visited Afghanistan, an Islamic country, and four countries with a predominantly Muslim popolation: Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Vajpayee visited Pakistan, Syria, Iran and Oman, all Islamic countries, and seven countries with a predominantly Muslim population including Turkey, Malaysia, Tajikistan, Indonesia and Nigeria.
Government officials said Singh has been very selective in picking countries tovisit. A spokesperson for the PMO said the present government believes foreign visits should be “diplomacy, not tourism.” “Also, consider how extensive the visits by senior cabinet and non-cabinet colleagues are and the impact of those,” he said.
In the first quarter of this year, India’s external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee has visited 10 countries including Pakistan and Iran.
“A visit by another official, no matter how senior, cannot replace a visit by the Prime Minister of a country,” said Parthasarathy.