5 APRIL 2016
A balancing act in Riyadh
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Riyadh reflects a resolve to deepen India's engagement in West Asia. The visit comes eight months after Mr. Modi travelled to the United Arab Emirates, and it is expected be followed by one to Israel. This demonstrates New Delhi's tightrope-walking foreign policy towards the region. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been a traditional source of energy and of remittances for India. In recent years, bilateral ties had acquired a security dimension with both countries stepping up cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing. While Mr. Modi is clearly trying to build on the existing momentum, he is also seeking to upgrade the economic and security cooperation into a strategic partnership with Riyadh - an approach that is in line with the wider foreign policy outreach to improve ties with close allies of Pakistan. The timing of Mr. Modi's visit is significant. It has been reported that there are tensions in the Pakistan-Saudi relationship after Islamabad's renewed engagement with Iran. Pakistan had also refused to send troops to Yemen to join a Saudi war coalition. This is, therefore, a particularly good time to deepen ties, and the Saudis have responded positively. Hours ahead of Mr. Modi landing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. imposed joint sanctions on individuals linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Moreover, the joint statement issued by India and Saudi Arabia has an oblique reference to Pakistan as it calls on all states to dismantle terror infrastructure "where they happen to exist". The India-UAE joint communiqué in August had made a similar call.
The real question, however, is whether the joint statements will be translated into actual policies. Despite some tensions, there is nothing substantial to suggest that the Pakistani-Saudi alliance is getting any worse. Even though the joint statement denounces all kinds of terrorism, the Saudis are accused of funding extremist groups in West Asia, particularly in war-torn Syria. Besides, there are some fundamental weak spots in India-Saudi ties, ranging from concerns about Indian workers in the kingdom to its funding of Wahhabi groups elsewhere, including in India. Another obvious concern is the drastic change under way in West Asia, and the aggressive role Riyadh is playing in regional geopolitics. During the visit Mr. Modi may have focussed on the positive factors of the relationship to improve ties, and rightly so. But India cannot afford to miss the big picture while finessing policies. There have to be mechanisms to address the flaws as well, without which the grand diplomatic overtures may not bear fruit. Also, India would be wary of appearing partisan at a time when the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is at its peak. The best way forward is to continue the multi-directional West Asia policy with more vigour, but maintaining its equilibrium.
Year of the West Indies
This has been a most remarkable year for the West Indies. The men's, women's and under-19 teams have lit up world cricket, winning every premier event on offer - and this, despite a long-standing pay dispute between some of the region's best players and the West Indies Cricket Board. Darren Sammy and others in his squad almost did not travel to India for the World Twenty20; they didn't have West Indies Cricket Board contracts. Sammy said in his brave, moving victory address that every step was a struggle, that even something as routine as obtaining proper uniforms needed the team manager to work against the clock. Yet, the West Indies harnessed this sense of being wronged: in establishing an us-against-the-world dynamic, perceiving slights even when none was intended, and dedicating the effort to the Caribbean people, the side found a greater cause. The talent was never in question. The team had a collection of devastating power-hitters, many of whom could create chances with the ball and in the field; it also had Samuel Badree, the most effective bowler in the shortest format. And these were not merely skilful cricketers. They were also shrewd competitors, hardened in various professional T20 leagues. The parallel with Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in Australia is obvious. In the late-1970s, the finest natural talent was tempered in the toughest fires, forging a West Indies unit of utter dominance. Over the last few years, the most sought-after free agents have developed in the unforgiving air of franchise cricket, including in the Caribbean, forming the ultimate fantasy T20 team.
Tournaments are remembered by their final acts, and there have been few as brutal and breathtaking as Carlos Brathwaite's four successive last-over sixes. They contained within them everything that makes West Indies cricket so singular: thrilling physical talent, but the even rarer ability to relax from the doubting, conscious mind and let instinct take over. It is this knack of staying in the moment that resonates strongest with fans, hooking them for life. It is difficult to detect in the fog of competition. But it's more readily apparent in their unrestrained celebrations. The women's and under-19 teams showed a similar gift for letting go - it clinches tournaments, for it is the best antidote to pressure. It is also the reason the West Indies continues to turn out match-winners. But unless there is a professional structure in place in the Caribbean - or at least one that does not undermine cricketers - success will be sporadic. England will no doubt be heartbroken, given how close it was in the end. Unlike the West Indies, however, it has fewer systemic problems. Besides, the team showed it can play fearless, new-age cricket when liberated from the heavy yoke of conservatism. Few experts predicted a West Indies-England final, for the tournament had looked India's to lose. M.S. Dhoni's men began strong favourites in conditions they know very well, and Virat Kohli did everything in his power to keep it that way. But like others before them, they simply could not resist the West Indian surge.