By posthumously bestowing the Gandhi Peace Prize for 2019 upon Sultan Qaboos of Oman, New Delhi seeks to mend some of the diplomatic faux pas committed by previous governments. Over time, India developed such soft power honours to expand its diplomatic footprint. These include having international figures as chief guests for Republic Day celebrations (since 1950) or bestowing the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding (since 1965) and International Gandhi Peace Prize (since 1995). There are also non-official awards like the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development (from 1986) to further Indian interests. Due to political considerations, Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award (since 1954), was also awarded to Nelson Mandela when India’s citizenship is the criteria.
However, something is common to all these soft power efforts. There is no regularity, frequency and even announcement timing. Inertia and inefficiency meant that these awards are often not announced on a fixed schedule; the recent Gandhi Peace Prize (also posthumously to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh), for example, was announced on March 22, a less important date than October 2 or January 30. The same holds for prizes named after Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
There are further twists in the award to the Sultan of Oman. Since deposing his father in July 1970, Qaboos followed an unconventional policy. Not swayed by regional flag-waving rhetoric, he navigated a course of action that gradually came to mark a distinct Omani style. Qaboos was indifferent to regional moods on a host of issues: When the entire Arab world boycotted and isolated Egypt over the peace agreement with Israel, Oman maintained diplomatic relations with Cairo; as its Gulf Arab neighbours supported Saddam Hussein during his eight-year war with Iran, Oman stayed neutral; while some monarchies were scheming against the Islamic Republic, Oman was maintaining channels of communications with Tehran; and during the recent crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over Qatar, Muscat stayed neutral. Indeed, Qaboos’ diplomatic acumen was key to the Obama administration clinching the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was the first Indian leader to recognise Sultan Qaboos as a visionary and champion of regional peace and stability, especially in the post-Cold War international order. In June 1993, Muscat became the first Middle Eastern capital to host Rao. Three months earlier, junior petroleum minister Captain Satish Sharma signed two MoUs with Oman in the energy sector; one, to lay a US$ 4.5 billion 1,450 km sub-sea gas pipeline from Oman to India and the other for setting up two oil refineries in India. This was India’s first long-term energy security strategy and took place more than a decade before similar moves vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Rao’s visit was followed by that of President Shankar Dayal Sharma (who incidentally taught Sultan Qaboos in Pune) in 1996 and the visit of Qaboos himself the following year. As with Singapore in Southeast Asia, Rao prioritised Oman over others, as countries’ importance rests on their strategic significance, not just their territorial or economic size. However, a significant segment of the establishment and elite were not happy with Rao giving ‘undue’ importance to ‘smaller countries’. Three decades later, one can realise the role played by Singapore in enhancing India’s position, influence and status in the larger Indo-Pacific. Oman, however, could not emulate the Singapore model and emerge as India’s strategic partner in the Gulf. In the post-Rao era, the mandarins settled for ‘bigger’ powers and ignored Qaboos’ diplomatic acumen.
However, towards cementing the bilateral ties, the UPA government named Qaboos as the Jawaharlal Nehru Award recipient for 2004; but this honour was never formally presented to the Sultan due to scheduling difficulties, especially following the outbreak of popular protests in several Arab countries in 2011 and later on due to the Sultan’s health conditions. To signal Oman’s importance in its diplomatic calculations, India sought to invite Sultan Qaboos as the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations in 2013, but this never happened. Though media reports suggested ‘scheduling difficulties’, those following Oman closely attribute this to ‘personal tensions’ with the Omani foreign ministry. Hence, Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk became the last-minute replacement for 2013.
Meanwhile, during his visit to the Sultanate in February 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the ailing Sultan and discussed a host of regional issues and concerns. But given his antipathy towards Congress leaders past and present, the prime minister did not personally hand over the Nehru Award to Qaboos. Hence, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for 2004 continued to languish in some corner of the South Block.
In some ways, the posthumous Gandhi Peace Prize award to Sultan Qaboos should partly overcome the mishandling of the Nehru Prize and Republic Day honours to a true friend and ally of India. This, however, depends upon India not backsliding on its diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Muscat. The late Sultan Qaboos continues to remind us of the need to harness soft power tools more efficiently, lest one squanders their usefulness.
P R Kumaraswamy
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there