UPA looks overseas for domestic gains

UPA looks overseas for domestic gains

New Delhi: The ruling United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, is moving to strengthen its engagement with Islamic governments, with an eye on at least partly gaining domestic political mileage.

The Congress-party led government hopes the effort will appease Muslim voters who may have been angered by the nuclear deal with the US, some analysts say, as it looks to state polls this year and general elections in the next.

The government will receive Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 7 October, his second visit since the UPA took over in May 2004. In October, external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee will visit Iran to follow up on his 29 July trip when he sought to speed up the $7.4 billion (Rs34,262 crore) Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.

Abbas is expected to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Palestinian embassy building in the national capital. “We have given land in the Diplomatic Enclave (in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri area) for a new embassy building for Palestine. It will be completed in December," minister of state for external affairs E. Ahamed said.

The visit will help revive the strong links between New Delhi and Palestine, Ahamed said. “It is the continuation of the process of strengthening the ongoing deep-rooted relations with Palestine and the Palestinian cause," he said.

“India has been extremely careful (that) its relations with any third country should not affect the long-standing relations with Palestine," he added. India, which has supported the Palestinian cause, also shares strong economic and defence ties with Israel.

Bidyut Chakrabarty, a professor in the department of political science at Delhi University, said the effort to build closer ties with Islamic countries had both domestic and international dimensions.

“Domestically, by being friendly with these countries, the government is trying to win over the Muslim population," Chakrabarty said.

The new thrust to bilateral ties with Islamic countries comes almost a year after the government, as reported by Mint on 13 September 2007, was accused of neglecting relations with West Asia, the largest concentration of Islamic countries, as it pursued stronger ties with the US.

The government’s pursuit of the nuclear deal with the US, which is still pending passage by the US Congress, has been seen by some commentators and political parties as having the potential to alienate Muslims. According to the 2001 census, India had 138 million Muslims, their largest concentration outside of Indonesia.

Predictably, the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the effort to improve ties with Islamic governments was designed to “appease the Muslims".

“They want to pursue vote-bank politics," BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar said. Congress spokesman Manish Tewari dismissed the charge. “The Congress party always supported the Palestinian cause and when the party government commenced engagement with Israel, it was not at the cost of Palestine," he said. “With Iran, there has been a continuing engagement."