by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

The invitation extended by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister, to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj for attending the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers – being held in Abu Dhabi on 1-2 March – is a stunning development amid post-Pulwama and pre-election discourses in India.

Swaraj will address the inaugural plenary as a guest of honour and the development has been termed by the ministry she helms as "the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level."

On the other hand, the ministry has also interpreted the invitation as a "recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world."

A Stunning But Dramatic Development

The development is stunning because it marks an absolute turnaround in the attitude of OIC and India towards one another. It is also dramatic because it comes amid rising Islamophobia in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack on 14 February. While there is a history of India being humiliated by the OIC – a delegation headed by former Union Minister Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was disallowed from attending the inaugural conference in 1969 despite being in Morocco’s capital Rabat at the insistence of Pakistan's General Yahya Khan – in the recent past too, OIC and India have been at loggerheads.

Seldom has an OIC gathering concluded without a resolution or statement critical of events in Kashmir and India's handling of the issue.

In December 2018, the OIC termed a clash between security forces and civilians in Pulwama, in which several citizens were killed, as a “wicked terrorist act by Indian forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir.”

New Delhi rarely failed to criticise OIC resolutions on Kashmir passed at every annual conference, claiming it had "no locus standi in matters strictly internal to India" and it must "refrain from such references." The most commonly-used phrases in India’s responses to OIC were "utmost regret" or "extreme regret.”

Back in 1969, the first OIC conference was held in Rabat in an attempt to formulate a common response among Islamic nations after the attempted arson at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest shrine of Islam, in August that year. India wished to be party to the conference because of the country’s sizeable Muslim population and also because it resisted Pakistan's efforts to brand it as a Hindu country with no space for adherents of other religions.

When the Islamic Summit Conference was officially inaugurated in September 1969, India was represented by a hastily put-together delegation led by its ambassador to Morocco, Gurbachan Singh. This was because the decision to invite India was taken late and the ministerial delegation led by Ahmed arrived a day later. Thereafter, General Yahya Khan refused to step out of his cottage, demanding that the invitation to India be cancelled. Leaders of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other influential nations tried reasoning with the General but he did not yield ground. Eventually, Ahmed had to return without attending the conference.

That the present decision of UAE, certainly taken after consultations with Saudi Arabia, is not to Islamabad's liking can be made out from the lukewarm coverage of the event by Pakistani media. But, there is little likelihood of a similar insult to India because the Arab nations have greater leverage over Pakistan compared to 60 years ago for several reasons, including increased economic clout.

Reports suggest that the Modi government was first sounded out in January about the prospect of Swaraj being invited. Although it is a coincidence that the invite has been extended within a week of the Pulwama terror strike, and amid India's diplomatic moves and Modi's pledge of retaliatory action, the UAE's decision to still extend the invitation indicates that New Delhi has somewhat isolated Pakistan within Islamic countries. This is largely due to strategic considerations of UAE and Saudi Arabia. But, its impact will not be lost during the impending politically-challenging period for Modi.

What The Visit Means For The BJP

In a nation where cricket analogies are commonplace in politics, the decision to be OIC's guest of honour is comparable to the doosra of Saqlain Mushtaq. When the most commonly believed theory has been that the best chance for Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to come back to power would be if its core Hindu vote is consolidated, the message of this development needs to be pondered upon. This development cannot be decoded immediately but is important enough to assess important messages emanating from Swaraj's visit.

First, it conveys to its core supporters that Modi has succeeded in isolating Pakistan and getting on board nations which have, in the past, supported Islamabad.