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Nehru’s friendship for Nasser’s Egypt was a ‘tunnel-vision’ policy

India’s first Prime Minister, the simultaneously much revered and criticised Jawaharlal Nehru was instrumental in developing India’s foreign policy in the immediate post-independence era of the 1950s. Nehru, who was the country’s first Foreign Minister as well kept both his offices at a door’s distance.

During the 1950s and 1960s India under Nehru’s leadership spearheaded the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) along with others such as Egypt, Indonesia, Ghana and the former Yugoslavia. Eminent Indian diplomat V K Krishna Menon by 1953 had already introduced the idea by using the term ‘Non-aligned movement’ at the United Nations (UN). For NAM, according to some historians, the Bandung Asia-Africa conference of 1955 laid the bedrock for the movement to take an organised and structured form. Bandung, which is the capital of the West Java province in Indonesia, saw 29 heads of state from the new post-colonial era which had seen the birth of many new countries across the two continents.

Nehru along with his close friend, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, pushed towards formalisation of NAM during the Fifteenth Ordinary Session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, during which 17 new states from Africa and Asia were admitted as members to the UN. In 1961, NAM officially came into existence at Belgrade, the then capital of erstwhile Yugoslavia, under its then President Josip Broz Tito’s chairmanship, as the Conference of Heads of State of Government of Non-Aligned Countries.

On the side of the founding of NAM, Nehru and Nasser had forged close relations between India and Egypt. For New Delhi, Cairo became a single point policy for the entire west Asian region. Even as Nehru was wise enough to sign treaties and establish diplomatic links with many countries across the region, he gave utmost importance to Egypt in both political and economic mileage. This, according to some scholars, was one of India’s biggest undoing as economic relations between the two countries never rose to the levels that both Nehru and Nasser expected.

India remained in this diplomatic dance with Egypt for most of this period of time. Cairo was expecting to become a big exporter of cotton to India and cotton was seen as the commodity that will drive the trade up. However, India itself became an exporter of cotton during this time and this made the arrangements hoped for between India and Egypt impractical. During this period, Nasser soon after attending Arab League summit in 1970 died of a heart attack.

In 1973, Egypt under the government of President Anwar Sadat in alliance with Syria saw itself in the midst of a war with Israel. The conflict, also known as the Yom Kippur War or the October War, lasted 19 days and saw Cairo come near loss to Tel Aviv before a UN orchestrated ceasefire was cooperatively imposed by the US and USSR. During this period, New Delhi backed the Egyptian and Arab cause through the conflict.

Following the ceasefire, Cairo had regained control of the Sinai oil fields which Israel gave up as part of the peace treaty it signed with Egypt in 1979. Soon after, Egypt started to export oil to India. Although the exports were small, around 0.5 % of India’s annual overall imports, hydrocarbons quickly became the single biggest trade component. In the 2000s, oil has made up for 95 % of Egypt’s exports to India.

India also found itself in a more favourable position during the infamous oil embargo during this period enforced by the Arab members of the cartel like Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The embargo, enforced in 1973 as a fallout to American support for Israel during the October War, saw India as a beneficiary with oil imports from many Arab countries (including Egypt) rising substantially. The then Indian Minister of Petroleum and Chemicals, Devakanta Baruah, lauded India’s West Asian policies in the Parliament which had assured healthy level of oil supplies from the Arab states. However, other than securing the oil supplies, trade activities never flourished between the Arab countries and New Delhi. This status-quo till a certain extent exists even today though earnest attempts have been made by successive Indian governments to improve Indo – Arab trade beyond hydrocarbons.

As time progressed and Egyptian policies of warming up to the Soviet Union and the peace deal achieved with Israel, which stands to this day, India was finally looking towards gaining lost time and ground in building relations with other states in the West Asian region, specifically with the Arab states.

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