India’s Middle East Policy Owes Much to the Vajpayee Years

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former prime minister and a leading figure of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, may have passed away, but much of his policy toward the Middle East lives on. Vajpayee headed India’s first Hindu-led government to complete a full five-year term. His time in office, from 1998 to 2004, coincided with a period of dramatic transformation in the Middle East. His decisions during that period pushed India down a new course in the region, breaking with over 50 years of Nehruvian nonalignment. Despite its often-controversial nature, Vajpayee’s Middle East policy left an ineffaceable trace on India’s position in the region.

For India, Vajpayee’s term can be described as a period of reckoning with the new reality of the Middle East. Prior to this, India’s Middle East policy during the Cold War had centered on Jawaharlal Nehru’s personal relationship with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and, later, with Baathist Iraq.

However, Vajpayee’s government turned India’s Middle East policy around, accelerating a trend in Indian foreign policy that began with the end of the Cold War. To begin with, his government took relations with Israel to a new level. Although the Indian government had normalized relations with Israel in 1992, successive Indian governments kept Indo-Israeli relations largely under wraps for fear of inciting domestic criticism or alienating Arab states.

Vajpayee, however, was different. His government raised the profile of Indo-Israeli relations to an unprecedented level, especially since India found in Israel a willing security partner during its 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. To oversee relations, Vajpayee created the new post of national security advisor, to which he appointed Brajesh Mishra. The appointment of Mishra, who had served as a close associate of Vajpayee’s and was known for his pro-Israel views, helped circumvent India’s conservative ministry of external affairs that had long been known for its sympathy to the Palestinian cause.

As a result, Indo-Israeli relations flourished. Between 2000 and 2003, the two sides exchanged several high-profile visits that illustrated the extent of their relations. These included at least three delegations led by senior Indian cabinet members to Tel Aviv. The most notable, however, was the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to New Delhi in September 2003, which materialised even though he was considered by many – including in India – to be a war criminal.

Beyond Israel, Vajpayee’s desire for closer ties with the US also had regional ramifications. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, US President George W. Bush announced a global war on terror that Vajpayee’s government was all too keen to support. India’s support surged when, two months after the attacks in New York and Washington, New Delhi too was targeted by suspected Kashmiri militants in a terror attack on parliament.

As a result, Vajpayee’s government came very close – between February and July 2003 – to going along with the US’s disastrous policy in Iraq. Desperate for international legitimacy, the US relentlessly pushed India to contribute a peacekeeping contingent of 15,000-20,000 troops to help man a stabilization mission in war-torn Iraq. In an apparent attempt at scoring points with the Bush administration and projecting itself as a global power, the Vajpayee government seemed willing at one point to acquiesce to the US’s request. Ultimately, however, the legacy of India’s friendship with Saddam Hussein and the prospect of Indian troops shooting at Iraqi civilians were enough to dissuade Vajpayee’s government from placing troops under US command in Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, the Vajpayee government was also open to closer relations with Saudi Arabia. In January 2003, the late Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud bin Faisal paid a visit to New Delhi, breaking the monotony of a decade’s worth of Indo-Saudi tension. His visit sought to institutionalize a mechanism for dialog between Riyadh and New Delhi. Despite its modest effect at the time, the visit paved the way for a shift in Indo-Saudi relations that later materialized when the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne in 2005.

Nevertheless, the Vajpayee government’s closeness to the US and its overtures to Israel and Saudi Arabia did not prevent it from seeking better ties with Iran. In 2001, Vajpayee led a delegation to Tehran during which the two sides signed the Tehran Declaration, emphasizing their civilizational bonds. Two years later, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami reciprocated the visit, attending India’s Republic Day parade as chief guest. Khatami’s visit culminated in the 2003 New Delhi Declaration that represented an unprecedented statement of Indo-Iranian relations and approved a roadmap for strategic cooperation, even as Bush was busy declaring Iran a member of the “axis of evil.”

Finally, although Vajpayee’s policies in the Middle East often proved controversial at the time, they certainly helped reshape India’s position in the region. During his term, India grew much closer to Israel, Iran and – to a lesser degree – the GCC states. Although some aspects of his policy, such as his engagement with Iran, were later revised, the broad thrust of his work remains perceptible in India’s foreign policy today. In the end, although Vajpayee may have left us, his legacy and what it means for India’s position in the region will remain for many years.

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.