The recent Israel-Hamas conflict thrust India’s "strategic ambiguity" towards Israel and Palestine into sharp, uncomfortable relief – and may have helped trigger its imminent demise.
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public embrace of the Jewish state, and the country's rapturous following in right-wing and grassroots Hindu nationalist circles, India’s foreign policy apparatus, left-wing parties and even parts of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are unwilling to nail India’s colors to Israel’s mast at the expense of Palestine, to whom New Delhi has a long-standing commitment, and risking relations with states hostile to Israel, not least Iran.
But the conflict showed that India’s uneasy dance is now increasingly unsustainable.
At the UN Security Council on May 16th, India offered its strong support for the "just Palestinian cause" and "unwavering commitment to the two-state solution." However, recognizing such full-throated pivot towards Palestine required damage control vis-à-vis Jerusalem, India condemned Hamas rocket attacks in far harsher terms just four days later putting the onus on a ceasefire and future dialogue towards peace on Hamas.
Less than a week later, India abstained from the UN Human Rights Council vote calling for an inquiry into Israeli actions, stirring outrage from both the Palestinians and from senior Indian opposition figures such as Shashi Tharoor, who noted that India had previously managed relations with both Israel and Palestine "with the dexterity of a diplomatic trapeze artist" but now had "fallen off the tightrope."
When the Indian flag was missing from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thank-tweet to 16 countries for supporting Israel during the conflict, it startled Modi-government’s Hindu nationalist constituency. The initial response was hurt, followed by accusations of ungratefulness: They could not fathom that the Modi government had tried deliberately to refrain from expressing unconditional support for Israel.
India’s "constructive ambiguity" was thus unravelling into contradictions which pleased neither Israel, Palestine nor Modi’s BJP base.
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For four decades after independence in 1947, India’s politicians and diplomats, nurtured by founding father Nehru’s vision, viewed Israel as a colonizer, and condemned its alleged atrocities and racist policies against Palestinians. It wasn’t until 1992, under the revolutionary but largely unsung premier Narasimha Rao, that India formally recognized Israel, and established diplomatic relations.
However, even after that, the pace of enhancing ties was slow: India was busy dealing with bloody insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir, faced strategic dilemmas after the Soviet Union’s disintegration, and domestic political crises induced by a series of weak and unstable coalition governments.
Then, in 1999, the Kargil conflict with Pakistan erupted, leaving India exposed and vulnerable in its Himalayan border region. At a critical hour, and at short notice, Israel stepped in, providing India with crucial state-of-the-art weaponry such as laser-guided bombs.
In the 2000s, a series of brutal Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks exposed the Congress government’s soft-ball approach towards Islamic extremism and cross-border terrorism, alongside massive corruption scams. All this coincided with the rise of Modi as a Hindu nationalist leader and the increasing popularity of Israel as a role model in fighting against jihadi terrorism.
When Modi came to power in 2014, there was a general expectation that India would shed its decades-old policy of supporting Palestine in international forums and openly come out as a firm ally of Israel.
Indeed, since 2014, there has been fast and furious progress in official India-Israel ties: in counter-terrorism, agri-tech, business, and defense.
Amongst the BJP’s core supporters, Israel enjoys a massive following on social media, in TV debates, think-tank deliberations, YouTube videos, and newspaper articles. There are now close ties with India’s right-leaning Indian think tanks like the Vivekananda International Foundation and the India Foundation. Israel’s Fauda TV series marked a new popular culture milestone, becoming a craze among India’s armed forces and Hindu nationalists.
But when it comes to India’s official stand in the global diplomatic forums, even a BJP-led India seems highly uncomfortable making its pro-Israel stance public. In the UN, India voted against the Trump administration’s proposal to make Jerusalem Israel’s capital.
Modi made sure to visit Ramallah after Jerusalem when he visited Israel in 2018, calling the visit "historic" and praising Yasser Arafat as "one of the world’s greatest leaders." India generally abstains from Human Rights Council votes on Palestine at the UN.
Despite the massive support for Israel among its voters, the BJP’s ambiguous stance is a puzzle that requires decoding.
The most important reason for the ruling party’s reluctance to hug Israel tighter within international institutions lies in the overwhelming domination of India’s foreign policy planning and implementation by the diplomatic, not political elite.
Famous for their status quo-ism, diplomats generally prefer continuity over change. Hence, any attempt to depart from the past faces strenuous resistance. A disproportionate number are graduates of Jawaharlal Nehru University, a bastion of leftist politics, anti-Israel sentiment and die-hard Nehruvianism. Hence, they have genuine sympathies for Palestine.
In contrast, India’s political leadership lacks sufficient intellectual depth and charisma to steer definitive foreign policy shifts smoothly, consistently and confidently.
For decades, India’s diplomats and intelligence apparatus have argued that too-overt support for Israel would damage India’s ties with the Arab world, which hosts eight million Indian workers, a vital source of remittances. Despite the geopolitical changes wrought by normalization with the Abraham Accords, Indian ambivalence continues. This time, India fears annoying Iran.
India foreign ministry mandarins believe, correctly, that strengthening India-Israel relations damages India’s cultural and historical ties with Tehran. However, seen from the prism of national security, the argument is weak-kneed. Iran’s stand vis-à-vis India’s geostrategic concerns have always been equivocal.
As early as the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, Iran came to Pakistan’s aid and provided access to its airfields. Since the early 1990s, Iran has made no bones about its pro-Pakistan tilt in regard to the Kashmir issue. Lately, Iran has invested in widescale religious radicalization in Kashmir, resulting in traditionally loyal Shias turning against India.
After the abrogation of Article 370, which had guaranteed a form of autonomy to Kashmir, the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the March 2020 Delhi riots, all of which were seen as attacking the rights and safety of India’s Muslim community, the Iranian leadership has escalated its anti-India stance in public pronouncements.
Another argument made against overly-warm policy stances towards Israel is that it would further alienate India’s 190 million Muslims who, it is claimed, are already agitated by the BJP government’s pro-Israel tilt. However, there is little empirical evidence to support that claim.
Indian Muslims have mostly stayed away from West Asian Islamist movements, and even though those movements’ influence have strengthened recently, it is doubtful that Indian Muslims would resort to violent civil unrest due to India supporting Israel.
But if a violent Islamist backlash is unlikely, the BJP does fear a backlash at the ballot box.
Modi’s party fears alienating the Shia Muslims who have traditionally voted for the BJP in various regions of India. Thanks to Iran’s strong following among India’s Shia clerics and community, the BJP also wants to continue the façade of cozy ties with Iran to keep the Shia community onside.
The Modi government is facing one of the most difficult periods of its seven-year rule. It is the subject of brutal criticism from the global media, scholars, and activists for policies perceived as targeting both democratic dissent and India’s Muslim minority. It suffered colossal electoral defeat in the much-publicized and communally polarized Bengal state elections, followed by widespread anti-Hindu violence.
And above it all hangs the dark cloud of a disastrous COVID second wave, exposing the vulnerabilities of India’s 70 years old shoddy, decrepit health infrastructure. Spiralling deaths, government complacency and its inefficient handling of the pandemic resulted in a sustained media attack and public anger against the government, shattering its morale.
In response, the government has gone into some kind of hibernation, switching to risk-averse mode, and unwilling to push back against another round of shrill criticism by unconditionally voting in Israel’s favor at the UN.
Despite all this, the periodic conflicts involving Israel and Hamas and deepening ties with Israel have already proven a hard test for India’s strategic ambiguity. With the realization that it will only come under more pressure in the future, it seems India is finally inching towards a more definitive position.
With its mid-May UN General Assembly statement, which skipped mention of the Palestinian cause, India has more or less made its pro-Israel stand explicit.
Abhinav Pandya is the author of "Radicalization in India: An Exploration," (Pentagon Press, 2019) and a forthcoming book on terror financing in Kashmir. He is the co-founder of the Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitics and security affairs think tank. Twitter: @abhinavpandya