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About Kabir Taneja

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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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How India made its mark in Sudan and South Sudan

The breakout of ethnic violence in South Sudan over the past month has seen hundreds of civilians killed. Yesterday, two Indian soldiers serving in in the country as part of the United Nation’s peacekeeping force died after their base was ambushed by rebels. New Delhi has close relations with Juba, and much before its independence, had impeccable and historic relations with Khartoum. Sudan was India’s first oil and gas homerun abroad.

In the mid-1990s, India seriously started mooting investing in the energy sector abroad as its newly liberalised economy and its new designers realised that for successful and uninterrupted economic growth for a country of this size, it was vital to organise uninterrupted supply of fuel.

Prior to this India, which has always been a net importer of crude, had invested in Russia which provided more than favourable conditions.  Now, things were changing and decision making on the issue at the Prime Minister’s Office was changing. One of the earliest signs of India’s intensions for overseas investments in oil and gas came with the then much publicised idea of the Central Asia Gas Pipeline Project (CAGPP), an idea first put forward by the company Bridas from Argentina. Indian diplomats at the time in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, had started pressurising the Indian government to seriously look into the prospects of bringing natural gas from central Asia into India, but avoiding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alternates included building pipelines through parts of China.

As politics over the central Asian pipeline continues even today, in 2013, India’s plans to invest in energy assets abroad took it elsewhere. Africa is a continent rich in natural resources and while not much of Western interest prevailed there in the 1990s, due to various reasons, the developing world started to look at the continent as a viable and comparatively economical region to invest in.

However, there was considerable dissent within the multi-layered political circles on Delhi whether India should invest in assets such as these abroad or not, specifically in Africa. Such an investment was unprecedented in a post-90s India and possibility of this happening, while challenging, was eventually unavoidable.

When BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister in 1998, Indian oil and gas sector started to work towards applying (previously failed) pressure on the Prime Minister’s Office to start investing in energy assets abroad. During lobbying for this, many involved from the industry realised that some of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Cabinet ministers were dead against investing in a project in Sudan. ONGC Videsh (OVL) had already managed to win the country’s first big foreign energy project in Russia’s Sakhalin-1 field in 2001. However, Sudan was a different, challenging, risky and unconventional bid.

One of the main reasons why powerful people such as Arun Shourie and the late Pramod Mahajan were advising Vajpayee against this “adventure” was the fact the stake India was looking to buy also involved China. This was looked upon as against India’s national interest within the cabinet and the trust factor with Beijing was not the strongest, making it a risky venture.

Ram Naik, who was the Oil Minister at the time, was spearheading these acquisitions knowing that Vajpayee was interested in this direction. Bureaucrats, oilmen and others including ministers had managed to correctly guide Naik in accepting that these bids are necessities and not luxuries. The dissent, nonetheless, continued within the cabinet. It is known that Mahajan had said: “hum gareeb desh hain. Sudan mein itna paisa lagane ki kya zaroorat hai? (we are a poor country, why do we need to put so much money in Sudan?). Arun Shourie reportedly added weight to Mahajan’s views.

However, Vajpayee and now L K Advani, who had gotten involved, were not convinced by Mahajan’s apprehensions. A meeting was organised where bureaucrats and oil industry leaders were called in to offer further convince the cabinet. By this time, the people gunning for the Sudan deal had managed to get some newspapers to back the bid, with articles favouring the deal. However, not many made it into print since time was limited. Multiple copies were printed of these few articles which were then taken into the meeting and presented as though many articles backing the bid had been published across the spectrum of the print media.

The oil industry also highlighted the fact that India had invested over $1 billion in the Sakhalin-1 project in Russia successfully. This was presented as another feather in the cap of Oil Minister Ram Naik’s accomplishments. After listening to all the details including both Mahajan and Shourie making their concerns known assertively, Vajpayee decided to overrule all opposing viewpoints after L K Advani convinced him that the deal should go ahead along with risk insurance, which was organised by a British bank. He (Vajpayee) gave ONGC Videsh a historic unconditional nod for the deal.

India went ahead and bought 25% stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) from Canadian major Talisman Energy for a staggering sum of $750 million in 2003. The China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) owns 40 per cent in GNPOC, Petronas of Malaysia has 30 per cent and the Sudanese national oil company 5 per cent.

This successful deal, passed thanks to political foresight and smart and intense lobbying by both diplomats and oil industry leaders, opened in a way many doors for other Indian businesses to grow in Africa. Even after the carving out of South Sudan from Sudan, New Delhi has managed to keep close relations with both Juba and Khartoum, even though the near war conditions between the two states do keep India’s Foreign Ministry on its toes. Last year, India had invited high level delegations from both countries to try and ease the tensions.

A lot of the troubles between Sudan and South Sudan have occurred due to the new international border separating them. Most of the rich oil and gas regions are around the border and the basins in the region are now shared by both countries. For many months Sudan had blocked routes for South Sudan, a land-locked country, to export its oil as the pipeline required for this runs via Sudan. Juba, as a response, asked India to come and build a new pipeline via Kenya, hence bypassing its problem in dealing with Khartoum and restoring its crucial funds received from oil and gas. However, India till now has not accepted due to concerns on both political (angering Khartoum which could have then got closer to China) and economic (cost of the project and the transit fees due to Kenya would have been too high).

Both Sudan and South Sudan are great examples of governance with vision, which managed to get both in the bigger business of owning energy assets abroad and getting a good foot hold in Africa, a continent on the cusp of an economic boom.

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‘Condemnation’ as an Indian foreign policy choice.

India’s foreign policy in the Middle East has largely been tied three things, its need for oil, keeping cultural ties active in consideration of its large Muslim population back home along with the issue of Kashmir and the country’s general (and aloof) policy of non-alignment.

However, it is not to say that in its quest to achieve the above, it hasn’t made mistakes in the region. In the 1950s and beyond, starting with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who used to shift between the Prime Minister’s desk and the Foreign Minister’s desk, New Delhi made strong inroads in the Arab world by building close ties with at the time regional powers such as Egypt.

However, New Delhi found itself in a bind in the early 1990s as tensions in the Middle East grew over Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s unprecedented aggressive moves against the tiny emirate of Kuwait. In response the United States initiated operation Desert Storm to militarily evict Hussein’s army from Kuwaiti territory.

Prior to the first Gulf War, India was on excellent terms with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Bilateral relations were thriving, trade was on the rise. The warm relations had been in effect since the 1970s and India even trained Iraqi pilots on MiG fighter jets more than both Pakistan and the Soviet Union, as popularly known. Iraq remained neutral during the 1965 war but supported Pakistan via the Gulf states during the 1971 war, but this stance was later reversed by Baghdad in Delhi’s favour. Iraq was also became one of India’s biggest export markets in the 1980s and Saddam’s regime maintained diplomatic to New Delhi till his ouster in 2003.

As the American military forces moved into Kuwait to push back the Iraqis, New Delhi decided to shift its embassy to the southern Iraqi city of Basra. It became the only country to abandon its embassy in such a manner and portrayed its pro-Iraq stance openly till things started to become bleak for Saddam’s regime.

During this, an Indian diplomat in the region upon being asked as to why India has not condemned Iraq’s unwarranted moves against Kuwait replied that “condemnation was not part of India’s nature.”

India’s abandonment of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime was not the first time New Delhi had foregone an entire diplomatic relationship once it had stopped being economically beneficial. However, the fact that the act of ‘condemnation’ was being seen as unnatural from India by a certain part of the country’s diplomatic community could rightly show why New Delhi had to continuously de-construct and re-construct many of its relations in the larger West Asian region in the 1990s going into the 2000s.

India is currently taking a very similar stand with the now hugely complex Syrian crises. New Delhi has stood with Syria’s President and Ba’ath Party leader Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and has voted against any military action in the country. Although military action against the Syrian government seems highly unlikely at the moment, it does leave lingering questions whether India’s entitlement of abandonment of relations when the going gets tough has at least been dropped since its experience of moving Kuwait’s embassy to its aggressor’s shores.

With New Delhi possibly becoming part of the Geneva II negotiations for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian civil war, it could provide India with an opportunity to make amends to its previous failures as a potentially strong and lasting influence in the Middle East.

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Indian Media and Foreign Policy


There are a lot of aspects that have been covered in various papers and articles on India’s dynamics with the Middle East and the general west Asian region. However, one talk given by Kesava Menon of The Hindu on India and Iran in Bengaluru (not sure if he is still with the publication) was particularly interesting. Here are some snippets from his lecture:

> There are four main inter-linked issues that need to be examines: Iran’s strategic orientation, how the US is trying to manage global affairs, how India is coping with the US, India’s position on the Iran issue and India’s overall strategic orientation.

> All the technical questions concerned were sorted out to the satisfaction of the IAEA after many rounds of discussions since 2003. In this period, Western media released scare stories to depict Iran as pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Of course the dynamics of the Indo – Iranian relations have shifted under the new Rouhani government. Tehran under the new leadership is already pushing India in areas where Ahmadinejad’s regime gave much more leverage to New Delhi. However, Menon also mentions the lacklustre media coverage as a possible source of ill-informed opinions and discussions on India and Iran. This point, I believe, could be relevant with further Indian foreign relations with states such as China, US and so on.

Just a quick quote from Menon:

“Media coverage of inadequate depth may be responsible for the biased and superficial discussions of these issues”.

Media’s role of projecting Indian foreign policy is not very well documented and Menon’s lecture is just one of the two or three sources I have found where this topic has come up. Perhaps further studies on this topic should be done in India, considering the fact that foreign policy coverage is not really on any media organisation’s priority list unless Pakistan is involved.

It is why I still find bizarre that no Indian media organisation sent journalists to cover the Syrian crises.
Any further information (or general feedback), resources etc that any other Takshashila scholars may have on this would be much appreciated. I think Menon’s small talk here raises big points on how India’s foreign policy is perceived by the general public.

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West Asian politics and India’s energy security paradigm.


My paper is aimed at analysing and observing the shifts in West Asian politics and how changes in this crucial and volatile region will affect India’s aggressive push to secure its energy security framework. I am currently in my first week of working on this paper and am still ironing out my topic and the ways in which I would like to approach it with.

My background: I am primarily a journalist. You can read me in The Sunday Guardian, Tehelka and The New York Times regularly. I also write on India and its neighbours for Swedish and Norwegian publications from time to time. Prior to this, I spent 2 years working as a researcher and analyst for a European geo-political risk assessment company.

Following is a brief for my paper. All comments most welcomed and I will be tweaking the brief in the days to come.

Early last year, an obscure memo from Kuwait reached the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, voicing the country’s displeasure of India’s new energy investments in Israel. Kuwait maintains no diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Some suggested that Saudi Arabia, the largest exporter of oil to India, had prodded Kuwait to make this statement against Israel on its behalf to India.

Today, India imports more than 83% of its crude requirements. The top two suppliers at the moment are Saudi Arabia and Iraq. However, India has decided to engage with any country which is providing energy assets around the world, irrespective of global conditions or geo-political constrains of its suppliers. This has seen Indian projects spring up everywhere from African states such as Sudan to oil rich Latin American states such as Venezuela.

Considering this stance, India’s balance of relations in west Asia is going to be crucial to its energy security, which is the major driving force of the 21st century Indian foreign policy, other than the country’s immediate neighbourhood.  With the Foreign Ministry now applying a separate and dedicated position for energy security within its ranks, the seriousness of India’s energy crisis and recognition of the fact that much of India’s energy needs will be met via imports will push every government which rules New Delhi towards a common long-term foreign policy goal.

The importance of Indian – west Asian balance can be seen in the cracks developing between India and its historical ally, Iran, over energy trade between the two states in midst of heavy sanctions on the former by the US and the European Union. With problems within the region between Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia’s massive yet largely covert influence on the entire region, Iraq’s rise as an energy giant, Qatar’s money influence reaching every corner of the region and the on-going tensions in Lebanon, Egypt and so on pose big challenges for India. This fact has largely been recognised within the Ministry of External Affairs as well.

Each of these areas in west Asia also carries unique security and political baggage. While politics of Iran is a world’s away from that of the Arab World driven by Saudi Arabia, the US influence on the region adds and subtracts crucial trends on how countries behave with each other, including within the Arab world. On the security part, nuclearisation of Iran, Saudi’s access to nuclear weapons of Pakistan and Israel’s hidden nuclear agendas add dynamically to the region’s political, economic and security discourse. Using all these issues, every country in the region that India deals with for its own economic and strategic security comes with its own set of challenges.

For my research, I would like to answer the question “How will west Asia’s politics play a role in India’s long-term energy security policy plans?” I would like to study how India can balance its relationship between all its energy interest partners in the west Asian region with giving specific emphasis on Indian diplomacy between the Arab world, Iran and Israel, with all three, for various reasons going beyond energy in some cases, being important to India’s current and future economic and security interests.

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