India, despite its growing closeness to the West, will not support further sanctions on Iran or abide by the Western oil embargo. This was made abundantly clear to visiting dignitaries through the last two weeks. Many reasons exists that have been discussed elsewhere including the economics of having a captive supplier with little propensity to negotiate and the realpolitik angle of encircling Pakistan and its Taliban proxies.
There is also the much more calculated but never stated in public rationale of neutralizing Sunni influence (which Indian policymakers in private see as deeply malignant) with a Shia bomb.
The overwhelming reason however — as all things are in India (something the West tends to forget) — is domestic electoral politics, both sectarian and economic.
Given that 2012 marks the start of a string of provincial elections in India’s most important swing states leading up to the general elections of 2014, the stakes are too high to allow flimsy considerations like foreign policy or alliance dynamics to overtake all-important power equations on the home turf.
As is the case throughout South Asia, the Sunni-Shia spilt in India stands at a 7:3 ratio. But unlike the repressed and economically depressed Shia in other Sunni majority states, in India, Shiites are way ahead economically socially and politically.
This dominance is very discreet given that the various Shia groupings in India tend to maintain a low profile and avoid issuing a slew of regressive fatwas concerning anything and everything under the sun. Politically however, precisely because they are so progressive, herd voting behavior is virtually nonexistent amongst the Shia.
In recent years, India’s Shia have started showing a tendency to vote for the opposition conservatives, especially in Kashmir Province. This forms an invaluable vote bank for the Bharatiya Janata Party, desperate to cultivate the minority vote — ergo for the opposition any alienation of Iran would be electoral suicide given that Islamic pan-national concept of ummah encourages Indian Shia to cherish their kinship with their Iranian coreligionists.
The Indian Sunnis on the other hand are among the most economically and socially depressed sections of Indian society and their voting patterns are controlled by key religious leaders with significant evidence of “loyalty transferability” on demand. These leaders form the key support blocks of the ruling Congress party as well as large segments of the left. The problem comes in because the Shia not having a block voting pattern also constitute a large support base for the Congress and alienating Iran can only be carried thus far and no further.
Economically, given the dire straits Iran is in, it will be hard for another supplier to match the prices or payment terms that Iran provides. The more disadvantaged Iran’s international position, the more India’s leverage grows.
The rupee trade agreement with Iran under which Iran will accept barter and/or rupee payment for upto 45 percent of its petroleum exports to India (and provide added economic stimulus in India) stands as the prime candidate for renegotiation as Iran’s bargaining position worsens.
Moreover, Iranian isolation helps India’s case in urging Iran to decouple oil and gas prices which would then see the now dead submarine Iran-India pipeline return to economic and security viability.
All this feeds into the fact that in India’s electoral math, the rural voter is king. Much of India’s rampant food inflation has to do with skyrocketing oil prices and consequently the high cost of transport — and the Indian rural voter does tend to vote on bread and butter issues. The loss of Iranian oil and the favorable pricing it offers translates into a price spike that however temporary, no political party would want to have to deal with on election eve.
In effect therefore while American and European sanctions seem rational and logical to the West, in Delhi, the call to follow suit is simply an invitation to electoral harakiri. Change in India’s Iran policy if at all it comes will have to wait until after the 2014 elections.