June 10, 2022

Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss the Nupur Sharma controversy and the potential fallout with the Gulf countries. We also look at the developments in the bullet train project in Gujarat, among other news.


Nupur Sharma Controversy – Will It Affect India’s Relations With The Gulf?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (Credits: Prime Minister’s Office, Government of IndiaCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The company we keep can often speak volumes. In international relations and foreign policy, allies are important for trade, economic development, and national security. While leaders will shake hands and make nice for the cameras, that relationship could be fragile. It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture for a fracture.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is learning this lesson in real-time. The fallout from the Nupur Sharma controversy doesn’t seem to be dying down. Several countries from the Gulf have spoken out one after the other. Is there a danger of India sabotaging its relations with them? Or is this a temporary blip with normal programming resuming shortly?


The BJP suspended its national spokesperson Nupur Sharma over controversial remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. The same treatment was meted out to Delhi BJP media-in-charge Naveen Jindal for similar comments. The party also denounced Sharma’s statements, which were made during a televised debate. In a release, BJP National General Secretary Arun Singh said the party respects all religions and cited the Indian constitution allowing people to practice any religion.

There was a steady stream of official statements and press releases from Gulf and Muslim majority countries condemning the statements made by Sharma. Then came Indian ambassadors in the Gulf region being summoned by their host foreign ministers. It began with Qatar summoning the Indian ambassador and demanding a public apology. Kuwait and Iran quickly followed. Saudi Arabia spoke out too.

The controversy came at a bad time for the party and country as Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was on an official visit to Qatar. There are also ramifications for the larger Muslim world and population. The Organisations of Islamic Conference (OIC) condemned the comments and raised concerns about the systematic harassment of Muslims in India.

India is working hard to calm the waters and put out the fires. Setting aside the domestic implications and criticisms, of which there are aplenty, its relations with the Gulf countries are significant. The first thing we think about when it comes to trading with the Gulf is oil. They have lots of it, and we need a lot of it. Of the total imports from West Asia, nearly two-thirds comprise petroleum products.

But exports from India are also an important component. West Asia, specifically countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are some of India’s biggest export markets. The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The UAE was India’s second-largest export and import market in 2021-22.

Will such an incident have an impact on Indo-Gulf relations? Will there be any severing of ties? Or are they strong enough to withstand something like this?

VIEW: Domestic, not foreign implications

The BJP seemed to act relatively quickly. With the suspension came the public clarification and communications with the countries in question. Relations with the Gulf have been quite warm for some time. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol and received UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan with a hug as he disembarked from his plane. Under Modi, India has reset relations with the Gulf under the ‘Look West’ policy.

For the government, the domestic side of things has gotten them into trouble with accusations of the party fanning the flames of hate over a while. Editorials and opposition parties wasted no time in criticising the party. While the Gulf countries have spoken out, none have made any explicit remarks about any form of diplomatic or economic boycott. The countries are aware of the economic impact.

Venkaiah Naidu’s Qatar visit, while coming at an awkward time, could also be an opportunity. A couple of days back, both countries announced a meeting of the Joint Commission later this year to strengthen bilateral ties. The #boycottQatarairways trend on Twitter won’t likely have much of an impact. Broadly, here’s what’s at stake – India’s goods imports from the GCC were $111 billion in FY22. India’s exports to them were $45 billion. It’s a case of business trumping politics.

COUNTERVIEW: It’s not just about business

There’s the obvious business and economic consequences with the trade and energy needs. India has staved off criticism in the past concerning the treatment of minorities. Whether it be from a country or specific politicians, the Indian Foreign Ministry wastes no time in hitting back. Now, the BJP is, for the first time, somewhat embarrassed on the world stage by the number of countries lodging protests.

So, there’s an economic implication here. There are millions of Indian expatriates who live and work across the Gulf countries. This episode puts at risk their safety as well as the tens of billions of dollars India receives in remittances. Diplomatically, things could get ugly. As author CJ Werleman opined, What if the Gulf countries threatened to deport Indian migrants or halt visas for Indian workers? Also, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar is a few months away, and India wouldn’t want any trouble for its travelling fans.

It could be naive to think that there won’t be some fallout on the ground. While governments may smooth things over with each other, they’ll have to be aware of public sentiment. In some cases, things have progressed rather ominously. In Kuwait, a supermarket removed Indian products from its shelves. Workers at the Al-Ardiya Co-Operative Society store had plastic sheets covering rice and spices with signs that read, “We have removed Indian products.”

What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) India’s relations with Gulf countries will not be affected due to the Nupur Sharma controversy.

b) India’s relations with Gulf countries will be affected due to the Nupur Sharma controversy.


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Climate-compatible agriculture (Uttarakhand) – Agri-tech company Gran Unnati is working with multiple stakeholders to help farmers in the Udham Singh Nagar district to save 4,000 litres of water per acre. It’s being done by adopting climate-compatible agriculture across 5,000 acres of farmland. Farmers are beginning to switch to climate-compatible crops that are also commercially viable. Success will ensure that other areas can adopt this too by switching to low-intensity crops like maize, pulses, oilseeds, etc.

Why it matters: According to the UN, more than five billion people could be affected by water scarcity by 2050. India has access to only 4% of the world’s water resources. Out of the total extractable groundwater in India, 90% goes to agriculture annually to support water-intensive crops. About 30% of the districts have reported critical groundwater levels.

Blacklisting Abbott (Tamil Nadu) – The Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation has blacklisted Abbott Healthcare for five years. The offence is the company allegedly didn’t disclose that it was banned by the Directorate General of Health Services and Employees’ State Insurance Corporation. An inquiry showed the company hadn’t stated its charges, including suspension from other agencies.

Why it matters: While it won’t be able to supply medicines like pain relievers procured by the government, the procurement agency said it will buy from other manufacturers. Tamil Nadu was buying 200 mg tablets of ibuprofen. The company has previously come under criticism from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a deadly bacteria found in its baby formula-making plant.

Removing ethanol cap (Bihar) – Chief Minister Nitish Kumar urged the Centre to remove the cap on ethanol production in the state. He said Bihar can become the country’s top producer as it’s the largest maize-producing state. He said he spoke to Home Minister Amit Shah on this issue during his April visit and said he requested a removal of the cap for all companies in the state.

Why it matters: The state government has an Ethanol Production Promotion Policy. It’s the first state in India to have its own ethanol promotion policy under the 2018 National Policy of Biofuels. It allows for the extraction of ethanol from surplus maize, which was earlier limited to sugarcane. The state has approved 17 ethanol-producing units.

Bullet train project (Gujarat) – For India’s ambitious bullet train project, the 61-km stretch between Surat and Bilimora in Gujarat will be operational only in 2026. The remaining parts in the state will be ready by 2028. While the deadline was 2023, the pandemic and problems in land acquisition have delayed the project. So far, the National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) has acquired 99% of the land needed in the state.

Why it matters: There’s pressure to expedite the project and conduct a trial run on this section as the state goes to the polls in the Assembly elections. The government wants to commission the full Gujarat stretch by 2027. In the state, the project spans about 352 km. Surat will be one of the largest stations in the project and will be the first to be completed.

Pitcher plant sanctuary (Meghalaya) – The state government has notified a 1.2 sq km patch of land within the Baghmara Reserve Forest as a Pitcher Plant Sanctuary. The government received a proposal that was approved by Chief Minister Conrad Sangma. The plant in question is cylindrical-shaped and grows a pitcher at the end of its leaf. It is mostly located in the state’s West and East Khasi Hills, West and South Garo Hills, and at the Jaintia Hills at an altitude of 1000-1,500 metres.

Why it matters: The plant is used in traditional medicine as the pitcher has a sticky liquid inside it. Due to habitat destruction and unsustainable harvesting, the plant may soon disappear. The decision to notify this area will ensure that this species is protected. The vegetation of the sanctuary provides a home to small animals like squirrels, foxes, lizards, and snakes.


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