NEW DELHI - As Israeli planes and tanks were exacting a heavy toll on Gaza, India's leaders and strategic thinkers were watching with an unusual degree of interest - and some empathy.
India's government, no surprise, joined the rest of the world in calling for an end to the military action, but its criticism of Israel was muted. For, as Israel demonstrated anew its determination to end attacks on its civilians by militants based in Hamas-controlled territory, many in India, still smarting from the horrors of the Mumbai attacks in November, have been asking: Why can't we do the same?
For many Indians, the temptation to identify with Israel was strengthened by the terrorists' seizure of the Chabad House, and the painful awareness that India and Israel share many of the same enemies. India, with its 150 million Muslims, has long been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, and remains strongly committed to an independent Palestinian state. But the Mumbai attacks confirmed what has become apparent in recent years: The forces of global Islamist terror have added Indians to their target list of reviled "Jews and crusaders."
Just as Israel has frequently been attacked by rockets fired from across its border, India has suffered repeated assaults by killers trained, equipped, financed and directed by elements based next door, in Pakistan. When president George W. Bush's press secretary equated members of Hamas with the Mumbai killers, her comments were widely circulated in India.
Yet there the parallels end. Israel is a small country living in a permanent state of siege, highly security-conscious and surrounded by forces hostile to it; India is a giant country whose borders are notoriously permeable, an open society known for its lax and easygoing ways.
Whereas many regard Israel's toughness as its principal characteristic, India's own citizens view their country as a soft state, its underbelly easily penetrated by determined terrorists. Whereas Israel notoriously exacts grim retribution for every attack on its soil, India has endured with numbing stoicism an endless series of bomb blasts, including at least six major assaults in different locations in 2008 alone. Terrorism has taken more lives in India than in any country in the world after Iraq, and yet, unlike Israel, India has seemed unable to do anything about it.
Moreover, whereas Israel's principal adversary is currently Hamas, India faces a slew of terrorist organizations - Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and more. But, whereas Hamas operates from Gaza without international recognition, India's tormentors function from Pakistan, a sovereign member of the United Nations. And that makes all the difference.
Hamas is in no position to repay Israel's air and ground attacks in kind, whereas an Indian attack on Pakistani territory, even one targeting terrorist bases and training camps, would invite swift retaliation from the Pakistani army. And, at the end of the day, one chilling fact would prevent India from thinking that it could use Israel's playbook: The country that condones, if not foments, the terror attacks on India is a nuclear power.
So India has gone to the world community with evidence that the Mumbai attacks were planned in Pakistan and conducted by Pakistanis who maintained contact with handlers there during the operation. While India had briefly hoped that the proof might enable Pakistan's weak civilian government to rein in the malign elements in its society, the Pakistani authorities' reaction has been one of denial.
Yet no one doubts that Pakistan's all-powerful military intelligence has, over the last two decades, created and supported terror organizations as instruments of Pakistani policy in Afghanistan and India. When India's embassy in Kabul was hit by a suicide bomber last July, American intelligence sources revealed that not only was Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence behind the attack, but that it made little effort to cover its tracks. The ISI knew perfectly well that India would not go to war with Pakistan to avenge the killing of its diplomatic personnel.
The fact is that India knows that war will accomplish nothing. Indeed, it is just what the terrorists want - a cause that would rally all Pakistanis to the flag and provide Pakistan's army an excuse to abandon the unpopular fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaida in the west for the more familiar terrain of the Indian border in the east. India's government sees no reason to play into the hands of those who seek that outcome.
Yet, when Indians watch Israel take the fight to the enemy, killing those who launched rockets against it and dismantling many of the sites from which the rockets flew, some cannot resist wishing that they could do something similar in Pakistan. India understands, though, that the collateral damage would be too high, the price in civilian lives unacceptable, and the risks of the conflict spiraling out of control too acute to contemplate such an option. So Indians place their trust in international diplomacy and watch, with ill-disguised wistfulness, as Israel does what they could never permit themselves to do.
Shashi Tharoor is an Indian novelist and commentator, and a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations. Copyright: Project Syndicate.