Congress cannot digest the fact that Muslim nations support me,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in a fiery speech last December, when his government was facing nationwide protests led by Muslims against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “They feel if the world’s Muslim countries love Modi so much, how will we create fear about him among Indian Muslims.” Modi added.
This was before riots would break out in Delhi.
Modi has repeatedly brandished his good relations with the Gulf countries to underscore the point that his anti-Muslim image was a domestic political conspiracy. He emphasised that India has “the best ever relations with Gulf countries in its history” and that the Maldives and Bahrain have bestowed their highest honours on him.
Do Muslim majority countries really ‘love Modi’? The real picture, however, is far more unflattering, to put it mildly.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeting about the Delhi riots may not bother Modi, but rebuke from Iran, Turkey and protests in Bangladesh may trigger a rethink.
If we look closely, there is a pattern in Muslim majority countries’ relations with Modi’s India.
The Muslim majority countries, which are relatively democratic, or at least where foreign policy is responsive to public opinion, have taken a clear stand against Modi’s perceived anti-Muslim policies. The more autocratic countries, which have more room to manoeuvre in terms of purely pursuing strategic interests, and ignoring Modi’s human rights record, have chosen to either stay silent or actively fete Modi.
Criticism of long-standing partners
In fact, in many parts of the Muslim world, Modi appears to be the most intensely disliked Indian Prime Minister ever. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted Thursday: “The hearts of Muslims all over the world are grieving over the massacre of Muslims in India. The govt of India should confront extremist Hindus & their parties & stop the massacre of Muslims in order to prevent India’s isolation from the world of Islam.” This denunciation (highlighted with the hashtag #IndianMuslimslnDanger) came on the heels of Iranian Foreign Minister Zawad Jarif castigating “organized violence against Indian Muslims” and an Iranian newspaper front page painting Modi as the “butcher of Delhi”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the same phrase “widespread..massacre of Muslims” to condemn the Delhi riots. And last month, Erdogan explicitly sided with Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir while addressing a joint session of the Pakistani Parliament. The Turkish strongman reminded his Pakistani interlocutors how Turkey had raised the Kashmir issue in the General Assembly in the wake of Article 370 nullification, and held ‘unilateral steps’ as responsible for the ‘suffering of the Kashmiri people’ — a barely veiled criticism of India.
Earlier, Malyasian PM Mahathir Mohamed questioned the necessity of the CAA, claiming ‘people are dying’ because of it. This was part of an extended altercation which started with Mahathir slamming India’s Article 370 move by declaring that India had “invaded and occupied” Kashmir. This prompted a diplomatic spat in which India drastically cut down Malaysian palm imports but Mahathir stuck to his guns. The Malaysian PM vowed to keep speaking out against ‘wrong things’ even if it means financial loss.
The usually reticent Indonesian government also joined in by expressing “concerns” over the riots to New Delhi, as “anger mounts in the predominantly Muslim country over what local Islamic groups say is anti-Muslim violence in India,” according to the Jakarta Post.
Even Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, one of Modi’s closest allies in South Asia, felt obligated to rebuke the Indian government by terming the CAA as “unnecessary”.
What is perplexing, therefore, is not the Gulf monarchies’ celebration of Modi (they celebrate US President Donald Trump even more) but the criticism of these long-standing partners. India has historically had good relations with all these countries. Former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar reacted to Khamenei’s tweet by terming the confrontation as a “serious rift”, and pointing out that “in 1994, it was Iran who helped India to beat back an OIC resolution on Kashmir at the UNHRC”.
A fast-changing image
Professor Raymond Hinnebusch writes in his book The International Politics of the Middle East: “In the Middle East public opinion normally plays little direct role in foreign policy formulation, which is the special business of top elites.” This is because in the Gulf States “political opposition is typically repressed and press controlled” and people are “inattentive and uninformed” and extremely dependent on the patronage of the oil-rich states.
It is hard to accurately gauge Arab public opinion on Modi, but if one barometer is the coverage of Al Jazeera, the portrait is increasingly dismal. So, it is almost certainly not the case of these countries ‘loving Modi so much’, rather it is the case of their regimes humouring Modi, probably in the face of adverse public opinion, for strategic trade and economic interests.
In contrast, the Iranian regime is hard-pressed to provide jobs and basic services to its people, especially under punishing US sanctions. So, the Iranian regime is much more sensitive to domestic public opinion, and draws its legitimacy from being seen domestically as a regional hegemon striving for justice in the Muslim world. This also explains why Iran has staunchly maintained its hard-line stance on Israel, even as its Gulf neighbours have warmed up to the Jewish state.
Similarly, Turkey under Erdogan has nursed its neo-Ottoman dreams of springing back to the centre of the Muslim world, a grand protector of the ‘Muslim ummah’. Therefore, Erdogan feels compelled to speak out against injustices to Muslim populations, from Palestine to Egypt to India.
Malaysia and Indonesia are relatively free countries where foreign policy, of necessity, has to reflect public opinion, if for nothing else than to shore up the public image of the incumbent.
It would be safe to say that the perception of the ‘Muslim ummah’ of India under Modi is increasingly of a country rife with anti-Muslim prejudice and violence. This image is perhaps not yet as starkly negative as that of Israel, thanks to deep-rooted cultural and historical ties, but that accumulated goodwill is steadily tapering off in many countries. Unless a thorough course correction is undertaken, instead of petty knee-jerk reactions, it would not only mean the fraying of enduring relationships, but also the evisceration of India’s image as a beacon of pluralism and democracy of the global south.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.