India Is Not a Monolith: Arabian Gulf Leaders Must Also Cultivate Ties at the Local Level

After a two-hour meeting at the Kerala state government headquarters, we were driving back to our hotel when our driver proposed a detour through one of the city’s bustling spice markets. There, we were greeted by local shopkeepers speaking Indian Arabic in a setting that immediately recalled a traditional Gulf souk. As a Bahraini diplomat visiting this south Indian state, which has contributed so much to Arabian Gulf countries, I felt a sense of familiarity that was striking, while the politics of the federal capital in New Delhi felt unusually distant.

That experience in 2012 was a reminder of the unique identity and localized agendas of this vast, dynamic country’s constituent states. Going forward, Gulf leaders must recognize that to fully benefit from burgeoning relations with this historical partner, they must engage with and understand local governments as well as leaders in the capital.

Foreign policy conducted with India prior to the 1990s was almost entirely a federal affair. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru exercised unquestioned authority over foreign affairs, refusing to appoint a foreign minister during his 17 years in office. The principle was actually enshrined in the Indian constitution, which reserved foreign policy as a federal responsibility. That perquisite was jealously guarded for decades by the insular foreign service and the ministry of external affairs.

The monopoly on foreign policy did not, however, preclude a strengthening of India’s historic ties with the Gulf. So strong were those bonds that they withstood the strain when the Indian government temporarily turned itself into an international pariah in 1990, as images of Foreign Minister IK Gujral embracing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – one month after the invasion of Kuwait – made the news. New Delhi may have made a diplomatic misstep, but Indians had already become an indispensable presence in the Gulf.

And despite the officially monolithic policy, cracks were already appearing in the wall. Even in the heyday of the Cold War, when India formalized its alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1971 treaty of friendship, several Indian states were forming enduring, organic bonds with the Gulf. Meanwhile, rising oil prices spurred spectacular economic growth in the Gulf states, opening the door to hundreds of thousands of workers originating particularly from several Indian states. The economic and cultural consequences were as apparent in that vibrant scene on the streets of Kerala’s state capital of Thiruvananthapuram as it is today in the capitals of the Gulf states.

In its own turn, the 1990s catapulted India into a new era of economic liberalization, opening the economy to foreign investors and encouraging regional governments to compete for foreign investment. The voices of India’s regional identities grew louder in national elections, allowing localized political parties to leverage their electoral power to influence foreign policy. In recent years, that enabled chief ministers who lead the 36 states and union territories to acquire a greater role abroad, in what is often referred to as India’s “parallel diplomacy,” not least with respect to the Gulf.

The results have transformed both sides. The most obvious example is Kerala, the largest source of Indian residents in the Gulf, where chief ministers have at times lobbied Gulf governments for investment and improved living conditions for their diaspora. Although leftist governments in Kerala formerly were reticent to openly associate with Gulf states, the left-of-center government of chief minister Oommen Chandy from 2011 to 2016, as well as his more leftist successor Pinarayi Vijiyan, have shed those inhibitions, making numerous appearances in Gulf capitals.

In turn, the Gulf states have responded to varying degrees. In 2013, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (in the interest of full disclosure, my former employer) paid the first official visit by a Gulf leader to Kerala, the origin of more than 70 percent of Indians living and working in Bahrain. In 2017, the Ruler of Sharjah in the UAE, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, also traveled to Kerala, where he explored bilateral investment opportunities and announced the pardon of Kerala citizens convicted on minor charges. Indeed, the UAE has led Gulf efforts to engage with India’s states to their mutual benefit.

A new generation of leaders have since overseen a near-total reversal of Nehru’s centralized foreign policy. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014 – largely based on his economic track record as Gujarat’s chief minister – regional governments have had unprecedented authority to attract investment and promote their own interests abroad in a campaign called “cooperative federalism.” Modi has pushed regional governments to sign new investment agreements as part of an effort to reform India’s investment framework, placing emphasis on the institutional capacity of states to resolve disputes locally. The Modi government also formed a “states division” at the ministry of external affairs in 2014, institutionalizing the principle of states’ involvement in foreign policy.

As India asserts its great power status, its influence in the Gulf, an area it often refers to as its “extended neighborhood,” is likely to grow in parallel with the expanding diplomatic role of individual states. India’s chief ministers have emerged in recent years as important domestic political brokers with clearly articulated foreign-policy interests that they are often capable of advancing, especially with respect to the Gulf. Some Gulf states have capitalized on the winds of the change more than others, but it’s time that all realized there is more to relationship with India than sipping chai with bureaucrats in New Delhi.

Hasan Alhasan is a PhD researcher at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where his work focuses on Indian foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, he served as a senior analyst at the office of the first deputy prime minister of Bahrain.