For South Block, it should be a foreign policy coup to get Benjamin Netanyahu, and Hassan Rouhani visits New Delhi within four weeks. Added with the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Palestine, UAE and Oman during the same period, one could appreciate the delicate balance that India is attempting in West Asia. What are the contours of this West Asia balance for India? How did this balance materialise? And will New Delhi be able to maintain this West Asia momentum? On the first question, there has been a gradual push over the last few decades towards deepening bilateral ties with West Asian countries, without getting trapped in regional rivalries. Sometimes this push happened with greater vigour and at times at a sluggish pace. Nevertheless, it continued. Consider the following. Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, was the latest high profile visitor from West Asia. His visit was both symbolic and substantial. It was symbolic for New Delhi, for Rouhani came immediately after Benjamin Netanyahu. The message is clear — India’s growing ties with Israel is not at the cost of its long-term relationship with Iran. Rouhani’s visit also took place at a diplomatic juncture, where India is seen as moving closer to the US, at a time when Trump is doing his destructive best to demolish the nuclear deal with Iran. Rouhani’s visit is also substantial — not only for the agreements that were signed but for the broader roadmap that they would lead to. Though the media focus is on the Chabahar port, it is only a beginning, and a means — not an end. The aim is larger India-Iran collaboration relating to infrastructural projects and political projection towards Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond. Earlier, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu visited India in January. Israel has been more willing in taking the bilateral relationship forward with India. New Delhi was cautious, as it had to balance its position vis-à-vis Palestine and also its relationship with Iran. Between the visits of Rouhani and Netanyahu, Modi visited Palestine, UAE and Oman. Modi’s Palestine visit is significant, as it dispelled a growing perception that India’s relationship with Israel is at the cost of its position on Palestine New Delhi today seems to be confident about balancing its relations with Israel and the rest of West Asia. Consider the high profile visits between the two countries during the recent years. Before Netanyahu’s visit to New Delhi last month, Modi visited Israel in July 2017, the first Prime Minister to do so in the last 25 years! Earlier, the Presidents of India and Israel visited each other during 2015 and 2016 respectively. A bilateral bonhomie has been initiated and reliance on back-channel diplomatic interactions has been reduced. Between the visits of Rouhani and Netanyahu, Modi visited Palestine, UAE and Oman. Modi’s Palestine visit is significant, as it dispelled a growing perception that India’s relationship with Israel is at the cost of its position on Palestine. Especially under this government, there is a general belief that right wing groups are in favour of abandoning the Palestine cause. Modi negated that view; he became the first Indian PM to visit Ramallah. After Palestine, Modi did not visit Israel, thus ‘de-hyphenating’ the two interactions. Even more important are Modi’s other visits to Oman and the UAE. The agreements signed during these visits would underline that these diplomatic ventures had more substance than symbolism. With UAE, New Delhi signed five agreements focused on the energy sector and infrastructure. These mainly involved railways, workforce and financial services, especially on a collaborative arrangement relating to the contractual employment of Indian workers. With Oman, New Delhi signed another series including an agreement on mutual visa exemption, cooperation on health, peaceful uses of outer space and expanding tourism. New efforts were made to promote linkages between institutions, for example between the Foreign Service Institute and Oman Diplomatic Institute; and between National Defence College Sultanate of Oman and the IDSA in New Delhi. Even the harshest critics of Modi will agree, the above is no ordinary achievement. Now, to the second question — how did this balance come about in West Asia? Should the credit go only to the present government? Five factors helped in India managing to walk the tightrope in West Asia. First, cutting across the party lines, there has been a consensus on India’s approach towards West Asia. Second, the external ministry should take more significant credit for this delicate balance. Not only has India had a set of gifted and proactive foreign secretaries since Shyam Saran, but also a series of Indian Ambassadors in respective countries, who’s efforts built bilateral relations from the ground up. Third, the Indian parliament played an important role in softening any adventurist approach or siding with one side at the cost of the other. For example, when there was a public push to have Indian boots on the Afghan ground or move closer to Israel, the Parliament would moderate these demands. More importantly, the Parliament allowed the External Ministry to take the primary lead in West Asia. Fourth, the Indian Diaspora plays an essential role by remaining in the background but working hard, thus projecting an Indian image in West Asia. There is hardly any negative sentiment towards the Indian Diaspora in West Asia. Besides, unlike most of the labour class from South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Indian labour adds value. Besides providing manual labour, as has been the case with rest of the region, the Indian work force also provides crucial support in technical fields — from health sectors to IT. Finally, there is the role of the present government and Modi. Though the diplomatic base was already made strong by the previous governments, Modi is taking it further with his personalised approach towards diplomacy. He would break protocol to receive, take them to his home state and more importantly, provide support to the external ministry to move further. Will India be able to sustain this West Asia momentum? That question needs to be dealt with separately. The writer is a Professor and a Dean at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bangalore. He edits an annual — Armed Conflicts in South Asia and maintains a portal on Pakistan — www.pakistanreader.org Published in Daily Times, February 24th 2018.