Reforms are needed in a political ecosystem that rewards those who excel in targeting minorities
When a strident variety of majoritarianism dominates the political centrestage, it can have serious external and domestic implications. BJP’s former spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal should have spared a thought on the larger consequences of their rash and reprehensible remarks against Islam and the Prophet. They have perhaps annulled years of hard work put in by India’s diplomatic community and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own outreach to the Gulf countries. Back home, such divisive and provocative rhetoric can destabilise law and order, damaging India’s reputation of being an inclusive society. If Sharma’s remarks have incited a riot in Kanpur, the blowback from the Islamic world comes as an acute embarrassment. Indians are the most preferred expatriates in the Gulf countries. The government’s clarification that India “accords the highest respect to all religions” and that the “offensive tweets and comments denigrating a religious personality” do not reflect the views of the government will serve to soothe tempers. Strategic experts believe such downslides to be transient in the long-term perspective with which nations build their ties. But for now India’s reputation as a tolerant place to travel, stay and do one’s business has been damaged. There is popular anger on the streets in countries where India was well perceived. In Kuwait, a favourite destination for migrant Indian workers, Indian products like tea and basmati rice have been pulled out of the shelves of a supermarket. So far, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia along with Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan as also the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council have condemned the ruling party spokespersons.
As for the economic stakes, India’s remittance from this region is estimated at over $40 billion annually. It is estimated that over half of the remittances to India come from just five Gulf countries – 26.9 per cent from the UAE, 11.6 per cent from Saudi Arabia, 6.5 per cent from Qatar, 5.5 per cent from Kuwait and 3 per cent from Oman. According to an analysis by ORF in April, the share of Persian Gulf countries in India’s crude imports has remained at 60 per cent over the last 15 years. The Indian diaspora is an integral part of the working population in these countries with more than a third of UAE’s residents being Indians. There are more than 80 lakh Indian expatriates working in this region. Diplomatic outreach of the past few years has only just come to fruition with beneficial FTAs, especially the one with UAE. A delegation of CEOs from the Gulf countries had visited the Kashmir Valley this March to evaluate investment opportunities. Such endeavours will amount to nothing in a climate of discord.
The government has stepped in to defuse the crisis, but more needs to be done to arrest the reputational damage. The right-wing trolls on social media need to be acted against. A political ecosystem which encourages hate speech has to be reformed. Such trends can hurt India positioning itself as an attractive investment destination. They cannot help in the country’s efforts to be a major voice on the global stage.