India-UAE relationship of recent years is a success story, which transformed the geopolitics of the Gulf region. The Gulf state pledged high investments in India, including in Jammu and Kashmir, decided to store its strategic oil reserves in India and joined India in its fight against terrorism.
Many grievances of the Indian workers were removed and permission was given to build a grand Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi. An Indian Minister of External Affairs was invited to address the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) for the first time under the auspices of the UAE.
The UAE is now on centrestage, having come to terms with Israel by reaching a breakthrough agreement brokered by President Trump. This accord is a godsend for India as Pakistan has taken a confrontationist posture against the UAE. Prime Minister Imran Khan has declared Israel as Pakistan’s worst enemy, relegating India to the second position.
India has welcomed the UAE-Israel agreement as historic and sees it as an opportunity for India, as it has good relations with both the UAE and Israel. This is the time when India and the UAE must be in close consultations to usher in peace and prosperity in the Gulf.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is credited with the idea that foreign policy should not be the exclusive preserve of the Union Government and that the states, particularly those close to our neighbouring countries or those which have their people in certain countries should advise and guide the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in matters of foreign policy. This was indeed a double-edged weapon, as we had a history of some states muddying up bilateral relations unwittingly by pursuing their narrow interests, without taking into account the larger picture of mutuality and reciprocity and the global situation.
Sri Lanka is the most significant case in which the internal politics in Tamil Nadu tied India up in knots in such a way that India could not view the situation there objectively and heal the conflict between the Sinhalas and the Tamils.
We got embroiled in the demand for Tamil Eelam and eventually the very freedom fighters became terrorists in India and took India on a disastrous course, hurting the very cause that Tamil Nadu championed.
At a lower level, Kerala caused disruption in India’s relations with the European Union for several years by insisting that the shooting of Indian fishermen by two Italian marines should be resolved legally, not politically.
West Bengal blocked an agreement between India and Bangladesh on Teesta waters, souring our ties with an important neighbour. Such calamities did not occur in Pakistan or China because the neighbouring states were not allowed to dabble in matters relating to those countries.
Kerala, which has major stakes in the Gulf region and particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), had a close relationship with the Emirates. Kerala’s diplomatic involvement in the UAE started off on a high note when the Ruler of Sharjah came to Thiruvananthapuram on an official visit and announced the release of 149 prisoners, not only from Kerala, but also from other parts of India as a gesture of goodwill. While Kerala celebrated this diplomatic coup, the MEA was red-faced about a development without its knowledge.
Then came the massive floods in 2018 and a reported offer of significant financial support to Kerala from the UAE, an amount larger than what was offered by the Union Government. New Delhi insisted on its policy of not receiving financial assistance from abroad at the time of calamities as a signal of India’s self-reliance as a major power. This was politicised to such an extent that the UAE denied any knowledge of such an offer. But the Kerala Chief Minister was allowed to visit the UAE to seek assistance from the Indians there and reportedly received a substantial sum for flood relief.
Today, the alleged activities of the newly created UAE Consulate General in Thiruvananthapuram are likely to damage India-UAE relations. The Consulate was established on account of the immense pressure from the Government of Kerala and the Indians in the UAE as a facility for the thousands of people from Kerala who require consular assistance.
The Kerala Government went to the extent of offering a prime property and all kinds of concessions, but they had to be withdrawn when the MEA insisted on reciprocity in such matters. But, over the years, the Consulate assumed a larger than life profile because of the excellent public relations by their employees and the anxiety of the local people for the glamour of hobnobbing with foreign diplomats.
Making use of its distance from New Delhi and its relative insignificance in policy matters, neither the MEA nor the UAE Foreign Office took notice of its activities, leading to gross violations of diplomatic protocol and norms of responsible behaviour.
The sudden explosion of the situation caused by the revelation that the diplomatic bags of the Consulate were being used for gold smuggling with the connivance of some officials of the Consulate and its former employees and even Kerala Government officials has rocked Kerala with the allegations reaching the highest office of the state.
Instead of containing the crisis diplomatically by quietly sending away the suspects and resuming normal functioning of the Consulate, the focus has shifted to the skeletons which have begun tumbling out of the cupboards of the Consulate and the Kerala Government.
A Minister is alleged to have been involved not only in receiving charitable assistance from the Consulate, but also in facilitating the distribution of holy books the Consulate denies to have shipped here.
The latest among the scandals is evidence that the Consulate connived in funding flood relief, which was blocked by the Government of India, by bringing in the Red Crescent of the UAE into it through a contract signed by the Consul General with a private contractor under a Memorandum of Understanding signed between a Government official and the Red Crescent of the UAE.
The proverbial ‘Lakshman Rekha’ appears to have been crossed by both the Consulate and the Kerala Government and the continuing inquiry by the central agencies may come up with even more serious charges.
The larger picture that these events may rupture India-UAE relations has been lost in the eagerness of the Opposition to damage the Kerala Government and the anxiety of the Government to protect itself by putting the blame on the Consulate.
The Ministry of External Affairs is making every effort to safeguard bilateral relations with the UAE by protecting the diplomatic immunity of the Consulate, despite requests from the investing agencies to question the Consular officers, who have returned to their country.
Moreover, the Ministry has accepted at face value the declaration made by the UAE Foreign Office that the bags used for smuggling gold were not diplomatic bags, as they were not certified as such and not sealed as required by the Vienna Convention. Their explanation was that some former employees of the Consulate, who were familiar with the use of diplomatic bags, may have misused the facility.
The allegations and counter allegations in Kerala, however serious they may be, should not be allowed to hurt India-UAE relations.
The investigation should be directed against the guilty in India and not the UAE officials, who enjoyed diplomatic immunity during their assignment here.