Middle Way Out
Modi’s West Asian balancing act maintains ties by remaining ambiguous
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
This is an anecdote that has been told in different ways. When NDA’s Home Minister LK Advani went to the United States of America (USA), he made an uncustomary trip to the Pentagon, where he happily agreed to the US government’s suggestion to send Indian troops to Iraq. When the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, got a whiff of this commitment, he is learnt to have asked some of the Left leaders, like AB Bardhan and Harkishan Singh Surjeet, why there were no protests against the US invasion of Iraq. Taking the cue from Vajpayee’s suggestion, they got their supporters out on Delhi streets. The orchestrated outrage worked. It became easy for the NDA government to tell Washington that it would be difficult to fulfil Advani’s promise, as Indian public opinion was hostile to putting boots on the ground in Iraq.
It may be possible to rearrange some parts of the sequence of events, but the truth is that Vajpayee encouraged Left parties to oppose the US invasion of Iraq and leveraged that opposition to preserve status quo in foreign policy. He knew that India’s interest was best served by staying away from others’ wars. Despite leading a party that has not shown great fondness for pandering to minorities or emotional ties with the Arab world, Vajpayee was cognisant of the harm a foolhardy move could bring to our social fabric: many Indians would not accept siding with Western powers and killing Muslims of West Asia, with whom our country has historical, religious and emotional ties.
The main reason for recounting this anecdote was to understand the flip-flops that the country has witnessed since the BJP has come to power. The party’s policy has come under a severe test after Israel went into Gaza to ostensibly blast out Hamas’ tunnels and in the process left a trail of death and destruction. As civilians death began to mount, allegations of a planned genocide began to reverberate in different parts of the world; Delhi seemed ambivalent about how to countenance the violence in West Asia. Were these allegations manufactured to fob off both those who wanted support for Israel and those who would criticise it, or were they a clear reflection of the split at the top on how Gaza should be handled? What was also to be seen was whether Narendra Modi would stick to Atal Behari Vajpayee’s foreign policy, or instead reveal his fascination for LK Advani’s attempts to see the world through the prism of Israel? Would morality guide India’s foreign policy—as it had done during the days of Jawahar Lal Nehru—or would pragmatism?
Initially, the BJP government seemed embarrassed by any criticism against Israel. It tried to prevent a debate in the Parliament over Gaza even after it had agreed to hold one. The specious argument put forward was that the government could not allow a discussion that involved two friends of India—Israel and Palestine. Later, the Chairperson of Rajya Sabha and Vice President Hamid Ansari allowed a discussion, but the demand for a vote was turned down. The statement from the Foreign Office on Gaza, too, was an attempt at equivalence, condemning the conduct of both Israel and Hamas. What was also interesting was the manner in which the outrage industry—which immediately weighs it on TV about anything that happens in China, Pakistan, Australia, etc. and eventually aids in ‘compelling’ the Indian government to act—was kept in check. Those fearsome and noisy moustachioed retired generals that are wheeled out whenever the Indian Government must be forced to react were kept out of such debates. The demonstrations that took place outside the Israeli embassy did not get the kind of traction one was accustomed to when the UPA was in power.
In Fortaleza, Brazil, where the BRICS summit took place, Prime Minister Modi stuck to the group’s position on Israel and Gaza. The Fortaleza Declaration stated: “Israel and Palestine to resume negotiations leading to a two-State solution with a contiguous and economically viable Palestinian State existing side by side in peace with Israel, within mutually agreed and internationally recognised borders based on the 4 June 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. We oppose the continuous construction and expansion of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories by the Israeli Government, which violates international law, gravely undermines peace efforts and threatens the viability of the two-State solution.”
It is unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or his government would be very happy with this statement. A few days later, the Indian government also backed the resolution adopted by the UNHCR on Gaza, in which Israel was roundly criticised. Expectedly, Tel Aviv called UNHCR names and dubbed it a “Kangaroo court”. There was no criticism of India, however, under the new dispensation of Narendra Modi, who had been wooed so aggressively by Tel Aviv over the last few years.
When BJP’s victory was announced on May 16, a joyous Prime Minister Benhamin Netanyahu announced to his cabinet colleagues that a friend of Israel had been elected. He even made a phone call to Modi to congratulate him. Israel was also one of those few countries that Modi had visited when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat—a state that had benefited from the bounce in ties between the two countries. UPA, too, had contributed in improving defence and civilian ties.
The BJP victory in 2014 was to take these ties to a different level, as many BJP and RSS leaders saw similarities between India and Israel—both countries having a hostile Islamic neighbour—and are in awe at how Israel has been able to survive all these years. Many hawks in the Sangh Parivar have seen great merit in Israel’s military strategy against Palestinians and other neighbours, and have beseeched the Indian government to embrace some of their methods. What is not really brought out is the plural character of Indian society, and the fact that a muscular approach in India could have disastrous domestic implications, as it could upset the tenuous balance that exists between Hindus and Muslims. There would likely be endless riots which could destabilise any government.
For quite a while, preserving this critical balance between the two communities lent strength to the secular moorings of the Congress party. Other secular parties, too, relied on the support of the minority community to keep the fundamentalist Hindus at bay. The Indian electorate was so constructed that the support of minorities was considered to be critical to gaining power in the caste-riven society.
The 2014 Parliament Elections changed the established paradigm that governed Indian elections and politics. A furious campaign by Narendra Modi manifestly underpinned by Hindu nationalism upset the easy calculations that the majority community is unable to come together. In the last Parliament Elections, Modi helped the BJP win a robust majority. For the first time, the ruling party did not need minority votes to come to power. This dramatic development was sure to make an impact on both social and foreign policy.
After this robust victory, there were expectations that Israel would be a major beneficiary of the coup. Many assumed Israel would find new support in India’s approach to events in West Asia. Meanwhile, Arab ambassadors complained that West Asia had not figured in the President’s speech. They also complained about the fact that many letters of congratulations sent by their heads of state had gone unanswered (this was a month after the PM had been sworn in).
Since then, though, the old establishment has borne upon the new, asserting that India’s energy supplies could be hurt if the government changes its course towards West Asia too quickly. The result of this pressure was a more nuanced policy towards Gaza. It is a different matter altogether that Israel has the support of major oil
producers in Saudi Arabia, UAE and elsewhere, as it bombs the open-air jail of 1.8 million people that Gaza
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not allow for easy description, and that is what many leaders—from Israel’s Netanyahu to Japan’s Shinzo Abe—are slowly finding out.