There are three questions about the Nupur-Naveen incident that are making rounds: 1. Were the Middle East and OIC response a result of a nudge by the USA?
2. Could New Delhi have responded in a better fashion?
3. Is there a bigger picture there somewhere?
Let us try to address them one by one.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran condemning India or Malaysia and Indonesia joining a little late to not miss out on the action, while they sound great when weaved into a tapestry indicating an international intrigue where a peeved Joe Biden nudges the Gulf nations to cascade some destabilization in the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, is just that: imagination.
That kind of a world stopped existing soon after the Cold War ended. Nation-states of that era operated as singular silos, clumped together to form blocs, ideas and command flowed top-down from their respective headquarters to get executed dutifully. These days, with stirrings of multipolarity, narrower transactional alliances, nationalistic views, and even attempts to reestablish old imperial influence as is visible in the behaviour of Turkey, Russia, China and Iran, times have changed.
While alliances exist, Cold War type blocs don’t (even NATO gives us a mixed picture these days). Besides that, the Middle East is a complex web in 2022. It was impossible to imagine a Saudi-UAE-Israel alliance about a decade back, but we have reached there. In the same way, it was impossible to imagine a fallout between KSA and USA, but Biden managed that just fine by announcing Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah state’. In fact, his recent damage control – after GCC gravitated towards Russia and OPEC-plus chose to not listen to him on production and price – has been a failure. That is an indication that the US is losing its clout.
This picture reinforces if we continue looking at the region. Qatar has left OPEC. It also forged an alliance with Iran and Syria – two of the main enemies that the US is fighting in Syria, while it still hosts the largest US base in the Gulf. And between UAE-KSA-Israel and Qatar-Iran-Syria axes, there is not much common ground to celebrate. Turkey and Qatar, or even Israel while being key US allies oscillate these days depending on their convenience.
I know this is a confusing picture, and that is the point. The Middle East is not an undivided bloc, it has put even the mighty US in a quandary. Yet when it came to the Nupur Sharma episode, they pulled together. That suggests that this has more to do with their love for their Prophet and less with a US-driven agenda to sabotage the Indian government. So Saudi Arabia or Iran, in their expression of outrage against the comments made by the BJP spokesperson did not need a US nudging; they have the relations with New Delhi in place to know how much to express and what to expect.
Qatar could have an agenda, true. Qatari state TV channel Al Jazeera picked this up from a few social media influencers in India and spearheaded it. This channel has some viewership in the West and holds some sway among deracinated Indian audience, and one of their major agenda, along with media houses like Washington Post is to go heavy with anti-India propaganda (WaPo for example sustains soft-Islamist journalists from the subcontinent and encourages their anti-Indian articles and essays). These media houses are enablers of disruptive subnationalism, and Al Jazeera grabbed this chance. (A US nudge could hold some logic here, but that would only be with this one state among a cluster of 13 nations).
Pakistan joined the condemnation too. Interestingly, that is your classic mule to carry out any disruptive plan for the subcontinent that the US might have, at a fraction of the cost.
Recent developments are pulling the Pakistan Army closer to the US. And as far as the other states like Malaysia are concerned, they joined because it was expected.
So was this response of the Middle East and OIC the result of a US nudge? The short answer is no.
This brings us to the next question: Could New Delhi have responded in a better fashion? Again, the short answer is probably not. While a section of Indians are contrasting New Delhi’s response with the way China or France stands up to Islamist demands, the fact is that a China type response is not an option for a large number of reasons (we know the economic/industrial/trade giant that China is). Interestingly enough, viewed that way, this takes a major load off the Foreign Ministry; the fact that their response to the outrage was largely the result of New Delhi’s internal inefficiency begins to make sense.
Finally, the third question: Is there a bigger picture there somewhere?
In fact, there are two pictures – internal and external. However, let us just restrict ourselves to the internal picture this time. That picture is about India’s constant inability to read the tea leaves with respect to its domestic affairs.
Think of Shaheen Bagh, the Farmer Agitation, Red Fort chaos, Delhi riots, the weekly stone pelting, the return of the Khalistani movement, the surfacing of Greta Thunberg’s toolkit, the organized social media campaigns of different ‘influencers’ united in their hatred for the incumbent government, the proliferation of domestic media houses that peddle inaccurate stories (oftentimes in collaboration with international media) – and it would be crystal clear to a layman about the secessionist undercurrent that swamps the country. One that is extremely motivated, well-funded, and united in their hatred against the rising assertive nationalistic Indic identity.
Unfortunately, New Delhi’s conduct in handling these matters does not incite confidence. There are three vital incompetences that scream out loud:
1. The government cannot control riots; the government cannot protect its monopoly on violence. This means the government cannot deliver on the most fundamental constant: the safety and security of its citizens.
2. The government cannot balance the narrative. It falls flat time and again in front of the well-coordinated media crusade that overwhelms cyberspace; the state PR has undertaken some of the shoddiest campaigns witnessed ever. This means the government is incapable of communicating.
3. The government does not have a standard operating procedure even after 3 years (Shaheen Bagh began in 2019) of what has now mutated into a low-intensity, continual asymmetric warfare – a constant fixture in the national landscape. This means that the government’s overall administrative competence is a suspect.
The bigger picture is that the Middle East’s response to the Nupur Sharma episode is the tip of an iceberg that remains firmly lodged inside the subcontinent. And it seems that the government is incapable/unwilling to address it.
(Arindam Mukherjee is a Calcutta-based author and a Learning & Development professional who likes to dabble in Eurasian geopolitics during his spare time.)
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)