Why Yemen could be a turning point in India’s geopolitical rise

India’s success in Yemen opens several geostrategic doors.

 |  8-minute read |   14-04-2015
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As anecdotes go, this one’s as good as any: An Indian woman sporting a bindi walked up to the checkout counter of a store in London. The sales girl looked at the bindi, smiled, and said: “Good job in Yemen.”

India’s rescue mission in Yemen was front page news in Japan for two consecutive days, reported senior journalist Ayaz Memon on a visit there. Media worldwide – television, newspapers, the internet – are still full of stories of how India’s navy and airforce, backed by Air India, rescued more than 6,000 people belonging to more than 40 nationalities in Yemen.

Enough has been written, spoken and filmed about India’s Yemen operation and this piece is not intended to add to that. More crucially, events of the past week in Yemen raise two questions: One, why has India over the years never punched at its true geopolitical weight? And two, does Yemen represent an inflection point in India’s growing geopolitical clout?

In 2011, we created the Geopolitical Power Index (GPI). The index ranks countries on 11 parameters: economy, military, development and so on. Each parameter is further based on five quantitative and qualitative sub-criteria. For example, the economy parameter has these five sub-criteria: per capita income, GDP, competitiveness, forex reserves and fiscal deficit.

The chart below shows rankings for the period January-June 2014 based on each nation’s global projection of hard and soft power.

Geopolitical Power Index (GPI)TM: 2014

For the period January-June 2014

  US China Germany UK Brazail India France Russia Japan South Africa
Economy 8(+) 9(-) 8(-) 3(+)  7(+) 5(+)  5(-) 4(-) 5(+)
Development  8     6(+)  9(+)  8    +(+)   3(+)  6    6(-)  8(-)  5(+)
Military  9(+)  9(+)  5(+)  6(-)  4    6(+)  7(+)  8(+)  4   4
Governance  8  2(-)  9  6(+)  6  2  4  2(-)   5(-)   3(+)
Innovation  7(+) 8(+)   7(+) 6(+)   5(+) 6(+)   7(-)    7(-)  5(+)
Geography  9  6  7(+)  5  5  9
Population 5(+)  8(-) 4(-)   5(+) 7(+)  7(+)  5(-)   5(-)   4(-)   5(+)
Culture  9(-)  7  5(+) 7 7(+)   6(+)  5(-)   7   6(+)
Religion 6(-)  4 5(-)   4  5
History  7(-) 5(+)   7(-)  5 4(+) 
Diaspora 8(+)  5(-)   4 7(+)   4(-)
TOTAL SCORE 79  74   66  64 63 61  60  59  57  55

(All category rankings are on a scale of 0 to 10. (+) denotes positive trend in a category; (-) denotes negative trend; no marking demotes neutral trend. Highest aggregate score is 110 across 11 parameters. © Minhaz Merchant – global Intelligence Review).

Will Yemen mark a turning point in India’s geopolitical standing and ambition? India’s rescue mission in Yemen has relied on the projection of both hard and soft power. The airforce and navy along with Air India have provided hard power – men, materials, logistics, aircraft and warships. But the fact that countries like the US, with far greater military hardware in the region, asked its citizens to board Indian flights and ships out of war-torn Aden demonstrates the importance of India’s soft power. No other country had the kind of access to Yemen that India did.

The complex sectarian equations in Yemen make Western powers unwelcome in this crucible of what is an Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war. The Shiite Houthis, backed by Iran, are battling the Saudi-led Sunni coalition which supports Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s president now in exile in Saudi Arabia. Sana’a, the country’s besieged former capital, fell to the Houthis last September. Aden, a key port and the government’s temporary capital, is being fiercely contested.

The US supports the Saudis in Yemen but is also fighting Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Shia-majority Iraq and Syria alongside Iranian-trained Shia militias. Washington has therefore been forced to stay on the sidelines of the Yemen civil war. It is only helping the Saudi-led coalition’s daily bombardment of Houthi positions with logistics and materials. This is in sharp contrast to the intense US bombing campaign to relieve the ISIS siege of Kobane, a town on the Turkish-Syrian border, and help Iraqi and Shia forces retake Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, last month.

With the West handicapped in Yemen, it was India’s longstanding neutrality in the Middle East’s sectarian battles that allowed it access to Aden. No airlift or naval operations would have been possible without a combination of Indian military and aviation assets as well as goodwill for India on the ground among all combatants.

The world media has taken note of this (in contrast to Indian media’s grudging and belated recognition of the huge rescue effort involved). So have global leaders. This is the right time therefore for a fundamental shift in India’s geostrategic policy and ambition. As our geopolitical power index (GPI) chart above shows, India scores poorly on governance and development. The rankings are for 2014 and India’s position on both parameters would clearly have improved in 2015. Much, though, remains to be done to enhance India’s geopolitical presence.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues his three-nation sweep through France, Germany and Canada, he will know that the leadership of the West will soon see many changes. There is a rightwards lurch in Europe and North America. Hillary Clinton is a formidable candidate for the US presidential election in November 2016. But the backlash against a deeply unpopular President Barack Obama could be a bigger problem than most Democrats acknowledge. Her likely Republican opponent is Jeb Bush – if he decides to run. He is seriously considering doing so. Republicans have traditionally been friendlier to India than Democrats. That is unlikely to change despite Hillary’s own lean-India stance.

In Britain, elections are scheduled for May 7. Opinion polls predict a fragmented mandate, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) set to win crucial seats. A hung Parliament is a probable outcome. The odds though are on David Cameron’s centre-right Tories winning another term with support from the Liberal Democrats. The Tories, like the Republicans, are ideologically closer to the Modi government than a Labour government led by Ed Milliband would be.

India’s success in Yemen, meanwhile, opens several geostrategic doors. Pakistan last Friday earned the ire of the entire Sunni Middle East when its National Assembly voted not to provide ground troops and fighter jets to help the Saudi-led coalition attacking the Houthis. The UAE was the most outspoken critic, saying Pakistan would pay a heavy price for its betrayal of the Sunni cause.

Shaheen Air, a private Pakistani airline, was denied landing rights in Saudi Arabia immediately after Islamabad declined to send ground troops and aircraft to join the Sunni coalition. The UAE has hinted darkly at deporting Pakistani workers from the Emirates. The schism between Pakistan and its Middle East benefactors could grow wider if the civil war in Yemen does not go Saudi Arabia’s way.

An article by Sami Al Reyami, the influential editor-in-chief of Emarat al Youm, warned: “The Gulf states have to re-evaluate their strategic partnership with Pakistan because it absolutely cannot be our trusted strategic ally.”

This is an opportunity for India to strengthen its own diplomatic and strategic interests in the Gulf. The prime minister’s equation with the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is strong. Their phone conversation led to the Saudis allowing Indian aircraft safe passage over Yemen’s skies (where more than 120 fighter jets are carrying out daily bombing raids on the Shia Houthis) to complete the rescue mission.

Pakistan is caught in a cleft stick. Its troops are stretched fighting a homegrown insurgency. Besides, fighting alongside a Sunni coalition in a foreign country would infuriate its Shia minority (just under 20 per cent of the country’s population), already under siege at home by Sunni militant groups.

Pakistan’s three man financial and strategic backers thus now have serious problems with Islamabad. The US knows it has been taken for a ride since 2001 in the war against terror. It has begun tightening the screws on Pakistan. Even its latest $965 million aid package to buy US military equipment falls far short of Pakistan’s demand. More seriously for Islamabad, Saudi Arabia and China can no longer be relied upon to offer unstinted support to Pakistan’s policy of using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Beijing is worried about Pakistan-based jihadis stirring the pot among Uighar Muslims in Xinjiang province. The Saudis remain wary of Pakistan’s commitment to fight Shia Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East following the US-Iran nuclear deal and Islamabad’s refusal to commit troops to Yemen.

For India, Pakistan is a renegade state with nuisance value – a pawn in China’s hands to keep India off-balance in the region and a piece of real estate the US can lease to keep an eye on Russian and Iranian designs in Central Asia.

The prime minister’s tour of Europe and Canada, followed by his visit to China next month, should lead to a more self-confident and assertive Indian foreign policy in South Asia and beyond. It is an opportune moment for India to finally begin punching at its true geopolitical weight.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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