The Indian interest in closer relations with Saudi Arabia dates back to the period from 1980 to 84 when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. As she was generally in the habit of doing, she initially sent a senior official of the Indian intelligence community on a secret visit to Saudi Arabia to test the waters for making an overture to the then ruling family. R.N. Kao, who was then the Senior Adviser to her, did the spade work in paving the way for a visit by her to Saudi Arabia. The then Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia played a significant role in convincing her about the positive feelings for India in the Saudi ruling family. These preliminary steps culminated in a successful visit by her to Saudi Arabia in 1982.
Her interest in closer relations with Saudi Arabia had four objectives -- to strengthen India's energy security, to use the good offices of Saudi Arabia to persuade Pakistan to stop supporting the Khalistan movement, to remove suspicions in the Islamic world in general and in Saudi Arabia in particular about India's Afghan policy which was widely perceived in the West and the Islamic world as supporting the Soviet interests in Afghanistan and to retain the continued support of the Indian Muslim community for the Congress (I).
The high expectations aroused by her visit did not materialise. Saudi Arabia was not able to or was not in a position to make Pakistan stop supporting the Khalistan movement. While the economic ties between the two countries continued to grow in fits and starts, there were no political or long-term strategic dividends from the visit. Even hopes that the visit could pave the way for a formal liaison relationship between the intelligence agencies of the two countries resulting in intelligence-sharing arrangements were belied.
Among the reasons for the disappointing sequel were-- firstly, Indira Gandhi's preoccupation with countering the Khalistan movement which ultimately led to her assassination in October,1984, and, secondly, the emergence of Pakistan as a frontline state in the jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the consequent reluctance of Saudi Arabia and the US to exercise pressure on Pakistan to make it stop supporting the Khalistan movement.
Under Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao as Prime Ministers, the exercise to upgrade our relations with Saudi Arabia was given a low priority. Both of them realised that India had to fight Khalistani terrorism and Pakistani sponsorship of it in its own way and through its own means and that it would be futile to expect the US or Saudi Arabia or any other country to exercise pressure on Pakistan. How to make the Pakistani use of Khalistani terrorism prohibitively costly to Islamabad? That became the main objective of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao.
Any scope for a new look at India's relations with Saudi Arabia was considerably reduced by the success of the Afghan Mujahideen supported by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the India-friendly Government of Najibullah in Kabul and capturing power in 1992, the emergence of the Taliban in 1994 and its capture of power in Kabul in 1996, the Saudi support for the Taliban Government and the Saudi sympathies for the Pakistan-backed jihadi terrorist organisations in Jammu & Kashmir post-1989.
Faced with these developments, India started exploring new diplomatic and operational options -- with some success. Iran played a central role in the Indian search for new options. Among these options, one could mention India enlisting the support of Iran to defeat the move of the Benazir Bhutto Government to have India condemned in the UN Human Rights Commission on the Kashmir issue in 1994 and the covert alliance with Iran and Russia to help the Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban. India's relations with Iran reached the height of their development under Narasimha Rao. Iran became the toast of the Indian diplomacy in the Islamic world just as Saudi Arabia seems to be becoming of the Manmohan Singh Government's diplomacy. Narasimha Rao braved the displeasure of the US Government in developing India's relations with Iran and of the Arab world in developing relations with Israel. Iran and Israel became the two fulcra around which Indian overt and covert diplomacy to counter Pakistan turned.
The Manmohan Singh government's renewed interest in developing closer relations with Saudi Arabia could be traced to his visit to Washington in July, 2005, during which the civilian nuclear co-operation agreement with the US was signed. New Delhi had to pay an unadmitted price for this agreement--downgrading its relations with Iran. The Indian vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and the low priority given by India to its participation in the project for the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan were the outcome of Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to the US and the new strategic co-operation with the US. New Delhi, which had consistently resisted US pressure on its Iran policy, became increasingly amenable to pressure from Washington. Result: Iran quietly retaliated on energy co-operation with India.
The need to find alternate sources for India's increasing energy requirements in the face of the post-2005 unhelpful attitude of Iran once again made New Delhi turn to Saudi Arabia for its energy security. Our relations with Saudi Arabia have acquired a Pakistani dimension after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Despite the terrorist strikes, the continuing Pakistani support to organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) put the Manmohan Singh government in a dilemma--to retaliate or not to retaliate. Dr Manmohan Singh is not a man of confrontation. Even though in response to public anger and political pressure from sections of his own party and other political parties, he suspended the composite dialogue with Pakistan and wriggled out of the agreement reached by him with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani at Sharm-el-Sheikh in July last, he has not given up his hopes of reaching some sort of an agreement with Pakistan which would make Pakistan discontinue the use of terrorism against India in Indian and Afghan territories as a prelude to the resumption of the composite dialogue with Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues.
Just as Indira Gandhi sought to use --unsuccessfully--the help of Saudi Arabia to make Pakistan stop supporting the Khalistanis, Dr.Manmohan Singh has sought the good offices of the Saudi King to make Pakistan stop supporting anti-India terrorism so that "he could walk the extra mile" with Pakistan as he put it. We are in for disappointment if we believe that Saudi Arabia will exercise pressure on Pakistan, another Sunni state, to stop supporting anti-India Sunni/Wahabi terrorist groups. There is a convergence between the views of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on the issue of jihadi Sunni terrorism directed against India. Both condemn jihadi Sunni terrorism in the Indian territory outside Jammu & Kashmir, but both look upon what is going on in J&K as a "freedom struggle". In the unlikely event of Saudi Arabia interceding with Pakistan to give satisfaction to India on the question of terrorism in hinterland India outside Kashmir, it would expect India to give satisfaction to Pakistan on Kashmir. Would Dr Manmohan Singh be prepared to do it?
Some of the recent statements of Dr.Manmohan Singh in Saudi Arabia are likely to be misinterpreted by Islamabad as indicating the beginning of a battle fatigue in New Delhi. It would make Pakistan even more determined than hitherto to keep up the pressure on India through terrorism to force a change in the status quo. Even if Saudi Arabia sincerely tries to exercise pressure on Pakistan on the terrorism issue, Pakistan is unlikely to give in at a time when it thinks that battle fatigue is setting in. It is one thing to strengthen our energy security by developing our relations with Saudi Arabia , but it is another to put our eggs in the Saudi basket in matters relating to our core concerns about Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism and Kashmir.
India is a frontline state in the battle against global Sunni/Wahabi jihadi terrorism. It has to fight the battle on its own, through its own means with the help of like-minded States. Saudi Arabia is definitely not a like-minded State in this regard. Another worrisome aspect of the recent visit (February 27 to March 1, 2010) of Dr Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia is his support to the Arab point of view on a peace settlement with Israel without consideration to the core concerns and sensitivities of Israel, which has been a steadfast well-wisher of India and has been quietly playing a helpful role in our attempts to modernise our Armed Forces to counter the modernisation of the Chinese Armed Forces.
Just as Dr Manmohan Singh paid a price in terms of Iran in his keenness to get closer to the US, he seems to be prepared to pay a price in terms of Israel in his keenness to get closer to Saudi Arabia. We supported the Arabs right or wrong to the detriment of Israel before 1967. What did we get in return? It will be very unfortunate if we revert to our pre-1967 policies in our keenness to cultivate Saudi Arabia.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institutue For Topical Studies, Chennai