India’s recent vote on Jerusalem,

– Abhinav Pandya

India’s Vote on Palestine lacks Strategic Vision

While India was voting in the favor of the UN resolution condemning Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Palestinian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mr. Walid Abu Ali was sharing the stage with Hafiz Muhammad  Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai-terror attacks in a political event of Difa-e-Pakistan council (a Pakistan-based group of anti-India radical Jihadi outfits). Contrary to everyone’s expectations, India voted in the favor of Palestinians dashing the nascent “Modi Doctrine” to the ground. Besides a few amateurish pieces in the online magazines of India, the event has hardly generated any buzz in the diplomatic and the think-tank world of India. The 24/7 media that hardly spare a single occasion in lambasting Pakistan is also conspicuously silent on the matter.
India’s vote puts across myriad disturbing questions about the reasons, motivations and the objectives of India’s foreign policy, and the response of the minds in the media, diplomacy and the academia.  Even a cursory glance at the facts of the matter raises serious questions about the rationale of the above-mentioned vote. The OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) preferred not to give even an iota of respect to India’s Muslims by not accepting India even as an observer despite having the world’s second-largest Muslim population. In fact, on one occasion one of the former Presidents of India was made to sit outside the meeting chamber while its proceedings were going on!!! (as told by a former Indian diplomat to the author.)Further, the OIC has never supported and will never support India on Kashmir issue in multilateral platforms. As recently as on November 9th, OIC organized a conference in Jeddah discussing India’s “atrocities” in Kashmir.
On the other hand, Israel has emerged as India’s great friend and a partner in defense, intelligence, counter-terrorism, technology, and business. In fact, in spite of having an unofficial relationship with Israel since1962, India established official diplomatic relations only in 1992!! On critical occasions, Israel has come to India’s rescue. During Kargil war, Israel supplied much needed laser-guided bombs which were crucial in winning back Himalayan heights in an extraordinarily tough terrain where infantry-based operations had already cost hundreds of soldiers in the lack of accurate air-strikes capability. And, the US has also distanced itself from Pakistan after the Kargil war. US has supported India’s membership bid for NSG and after Trump’s election, the US has openly threatened Pakistan of stopping the development aid and dismantling the terror infrastructure with military options if Pakistan fails to take effective action against extremists. Today , the world talks of a robust Indo-US partnership  and the emergence of India as a world power and a counter-weight against China in Asia,  and when India comes forth with such irrational and timid responses like the recent vote on Jerusalem, surprising the geopolitical community by such policy blunders, several questions arise as to what goes inside the minds of India’s diplomatic community.  Counter-radicalization expert Tufail Ahmad has said that it seems as if India has aligned with its worst enemies i.e. China and Pakistan in international bodies. He further writes in Print, “India cannot stand by its dependable allies in critical times……… It was not expected of Modi government to vote against the US and Israel, especially since the prime minister paid a historic visit to Israel last July, forging a strong and durable India-Israel strategic relationship”.
It is perfectly understandable if Middle Eastern countries vote in the favor of the resolution but what is India trying to achieve by thoughtlessly going against two of its strong and reliable strategic partners? Are there any deep-rooted long-term objectives, strategic goals, and doctrines behind India’s foreign policy or it’s just a random and ad-hoc series of reactions coming out of nowhere and leading to nowhere?
It’s high time one explored answers to the above-mentioned questions in a systematic manner as we are all talking about India as a leading global power, sometimes even as a strong contender claiming leadership in the new world order. But the question is- Is India even willing to take such leadership by demonstrating a world power like geopolitical posture? The recent vote presents a great opportunity to dissect India’s geopolitical subconscious. Although foreign policy is not the complete and the most accurate measure of a nation’s power but yes, a country’s geopolitical posture is majorly a function of its internal and external vulnerabilities and to a great extent a reflection of its history, socio-cultural and religious values, fears, preoccupations, perceptions, objectives and ambitions.
Defending the Modi’s government vote, veteran Indian diplomat and India’s former Ambassador to US Mr. Arun Singh has suggested that India’s vote is in line the general international consensus on the Israel-Palestine issue. He further writes, “Voting for or abstaining on the resolution would have been seen as a major change of position by India, got us some gratitude from Trump and present Israeli government, but India would be seen as giving up the autonomy of its decision making, conditioned by its growing ties with both US and Israel”.
Like Ambassador Arun Kumar, Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, India’s prominent strategic affairs expert(aligned with the right-leaning think-tank; Vivekananda Foundation) also feels that India’s vote is in line with the ‘large-scale international consensus on the Israel-Palestine conflict’ and abstention would have been perceived as a major shift in India’s Palestine policy. In his opinion piece for Swarajya, “India’s Jerusalem Vote: How it should be seen?” , he even appreciates India’s stance as a case of ‘strategic maturity’ where PM Modi is balancing India’s relations with Israel and Iran, both sworn adversaries and with Arabs and Israel, again both sworn enemies. He also feels that the vote is not going to do any harm to Indo-Israel relations as they have survived India’s existing Palestine policy over the last 60 years, and as it usually happens in diplomacy, there exists an unsaid, unseen and unofficial understanding between India and Israel which is strong enough to absorb little shocks like India’s recent vote.
Other commentators like Rajesh Saomi, who is a research scholar from left-leaning JNU feels that India’s vote is an example of ‘real-politik’ as voting in favor of Israel would have cost India the goodwill she generated in Afghanistan through its soft power. It would have projected its image as a flag-bearer of Israel in Afghanistan, Iran and in other Arab countries and Pakistan would have taken its advantage in tarnishing India’s image as anti-Muslim in Afghanistan. Shairee Malhotra, a researcher with European Institute for Asian Studies (Brussels), in her article for ‘Diplomat’, opines, “Despite its shift from idealism to pragmatism, India’s erstwhile tradition of following an autonomous foreign policy free from the interference of external powers continues to underpin present-day decision making………… India has stood its moral ground by not kowtowing to American pressure, thus exhibiting itself as a strong responsible actor within the international system that retains its principled position on international issues.”
As outlined above, the analysis of India’s response by an array of individuals including veteran diplomats, generals and young researchers broadly bring up the following elements of India’s strategic mindset- An obsession with preserving policy independence in multilateral forums, strong desire to portray itself as a moral force even at the cost of its strategic interests and the tendency to perceive any drift from the broad patterns of Nehruvian-era foreign policy as incorporation of Hindutva ideology(ideology of Hindu nationalism practiced by the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party)and the concomitant fear among South Block Mandarins of, the break from the past and its reception by the world community. Before vivisecting the above-mentioned deeper philosophical underpinnings or psychological distortions of Indian philosophy, a look at India’s vote on logical grounds merits a mention.
Agreed that India has stronger commercial ties with Arabs as India’s trade with Arabs countries was 18.5% of its total trade and with Israel was less than 1% of its total trade in 2016-17, but then it’s a two-way traffic. If India gets the largest chunk of oil from Arab states then even they would not want to lose such a huge market. If the remittances are crucial for India then the migrant Indian labor is equally important, or even more for the Arab world. Further, if India really wants the world to accept it as a credible, strong  and democratic power wishing to occupy the center stage in world affairs, then a principled stand that if Arab nations are guided by religion more than ethics and friendship over Kashmir issue then India will also be led by its strategic interests and self-esteem on the Palestine issue by aligning with Israel, needs to be spelt out clearly.
Secondly, India fears to lose Iran as a friend if she openly aligns with Israel on Palestine issue. But, Iran has never openly supported India on Kashmir issue. In fact, Iran Times reported that Khamanehi mentioned Kashmir along with Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq as places where Muslims were oppressed by occupiers. And, India does not need to worry too much about the Mollah regime of Iran facing suffocating diplomatic isolation and impending US airstrikes internationally and a hostile and disgruntled population almost on the verge of revolution at home. Iran has stakes in Chahbahaar and rationally speaking, Iran has all the reasons to keep India in good faith. And, even the economic logic dictates that Iran needs India as Iran in the grim days of isolation cannot afford to lose a large buyer of its oil.
If India says that she has de-hyphenated its relation with Israel and Palestine, then her relationship with Afghanistan and Israel can also be de-hyphenated. If a Muslim country like Pakistan has no qualms in aligning with the US and Saudi Arabia has no hesitations aligning with Israel against Iran, then there hardly appears any reason why India is scared of appearing as a flag-bearer of Israel in Afghanistan. And, India has done immense reconstruction work in Afghanistan, built bridges and parliament, offered scholarships to Afghan students, never sent its military, so Afghanistan is expected to understand and appreciate India’s concerns and security needs as a true friend. And, if Afghanistan cannot appreciate India’s friendship with Israel, then there is no reason for India also to be a sole contractor of utopian generosity. And, anyways if India is under a huge delusion of having secured strong strategic space in Afghanistan as it isn’t just possible without fielding one’s armed forces in a country like Afghanistan where even Americans are clueless after 15 years of wandering towards the mirage of sustainable victory.
Further, in defense, several researchers and diplomats argue that if Saudis, NATO allies like UK and France can vote in the favor of Palestine without getting their alliance with the US adversely impacted why can’t India do the same thing?  Superficially the argument makes some logical sense but comparing India with Saudis, UK, and France, is like comparing apples and oranges in diplomacy. The geopolitical dynamics of Middle East are different from that of South Asia. Saudis have always supported Palestine in multilateral fora as a moral obligation because it projects itself as a leader of the Islamic world. But in spite of such a fundamental obligation rooted in its existential identity, Saudis are now courting Israel and their bonhomie with the US is an open secret, as a response to rapidly expanding Iran’s Shia crescent across the Middle East. And, for UK, France and other NATO allies any stand, even if it is purely based on moral compunctions is not detrimental to their national interests as they are not seeking Arab votes or a Palestinian vote for any national issue like Kashmir. Hence, the contours of Indo-US relations cannot be decided by drawing lame comparisons with Saudis, UK, and France.

Several diplomats told this analyst in a private conversation that India does not want to be seen as a pliant state controlled by a hegemon. In fact, many of them were quite surprised as to what bothers this analyst so much about this vote, and frankly speaking, India’s stand hardly led to any serious academic response and analysis in the think-tank world. It seemed as if the obsession with guarding India’s autonomy in foreign policy is an accepted fact and the most paramount ideal for India’s diplomatic community. It is like a compulsive disorder and it is deeply entrenched in India’s geopolitical sub conscious. 1200 years of political and economic slavery has made India highly suspicious and wary of foreign entities. The above-mentioned obsession or rather fear of losing its autonomy has dominated India’s diplomatic establishment and foreign policy since her independence and its manifestation could be seen in the form of Nehru’s Non-Aligned Movement and India’s tightrope monkey-balancing during the cold-war era to keep the members of NAM (Non-Aligned Movement). Even the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) the anti-thesis of Nehruvian ideology, and the parent organization of BJP, the ruling party is also not immune to it. In fact, in its skepticism of foreign entities, it is a step ahead of Indian National Congress and an extremely secretive organization.
However, it seems that guarding its autonomy has made India highly impervious to change and its strategic thinking is stuck in the cold-war mindset. And, a closer analysis will reveal that the notion of policy independence which India is chasing lacks sufficient logical and strategic depth. First and foremost, it appears as if India’s foreign policy is still controlled and governed by a cold war mindset which cuts at the roots of so-called autonomy. It is a victim of its own attitudinal rigidity. Secondly, even in practice one hardly comes across a well-thought out and independent stance by India in the said vote on Palestine as before the vote the Arab members met Sushma Swaraj and prevailed on her in making India vote to their side.

India’s another obsession is with normative posturing and practicing. Even that emanates from the ideals and values that inspired its freedom movement like the Gandhian philosophy of truth and non-violence, anti-colonialism, respect for democracy, secularism and an over-all anti-western attitude. This moral posturing reflecting a mindset seeking acceptance and recognition happens even at the cost of national interests. Several diplomats and analysts tend to believe that India has deftly executed the delicate balancing in the Middle East by nurturing a strong partnership with Israel and at the same time keeping relations with the Arab world amicable and continuing its longtime commitment towards a Palestinian cause. However, such a belief is based on wishful thinking. The world of geopolitics is governed by hard realities and not abstract moral principles. The compulsions of the power play may convince Israel and US to nurture friendship with India keeping in mind the long-term vision for the security in the Middle East and South Asia, even at the cost of India’s indecisiveness and hesitations in openly allying with the two powers, but it does send a message that, essentially, India is not a trustworthy and a bankable ally. And, it can be seen in the analysis done by top US expert on India Ashely .J Tallis for Carnegie reflecting US diplomatic establishment’s perception of India as that of a conservative power with a defensive foreign policy, lacking a pro-active approach. India’s vote is certainly not going to be beneficial to its long-term partnership with US and Israel. Jaideep A. Prabhu, India’s nuclear and foreign policy specialist writing for  ‘Swarajya” , very aptly observes, “India’s misstep at the United Nations might not attract an immediate and specific response, but it will cool enthusiasm for greater trust and trade in sensitive technology and practices.”

Overall, one comes across a diffident and indecisive power wary of acting in its own right thereby making a sheer display of the lack of faith in its own potential and capabilities. A power that is extremely uncomfortable with emerging out of its comfort zone and more than willing to join the bandwagon of international consensus on Palestine without giving a thought to its own strategic priorities and interests is anything, but a contender for a strong geo-strategic space in the new world order. It seems there is no serious strategic thought and vision underlying India’s foreign policy, which this analyst prefers to address as ‘minimalist and defensive reactions to global events rooted in rigid mindset”.  After witnessing Modi’s keen interest in transforming India from a ‘balancing power’ to a ‘leading power’ in global affairs, the notion of “Modi doctrine’ had gained currency. India abstention from UNHRC’s vote against Israel (2015), attempts to moderate anti-Israel resolutions at NAM, Modi’s much-talked-about visit to Israel, surgical strikes against Pakistan, bold stand on terrorism and Islamic extremism and closer ties with US had raised hopes that India, is finally ridding itself of the shackles of Nehruvian era foreign policy and responding to new realities as a leading power with its “Modi doctrine”. But the recent vote dashed all the conjectures about the new Modi doctrine symbolizing major departures from the past and India’s coming of age. Once again, that leaves the world community with poor country locking horns with Hindutva and Islamic extremism, oblivious of the perils of uncontrollable population, impending water crises and the ticking time-bomb of the world’s largest youth population facing severe job crises, and  clueless about its long-term objectives with no sense of its place in the world.

At the most, one would find India desperately seeking its permanent seat in the Security Council or the declaration of Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism, but such short-term tactical goals are not what an aspiring world power would chase!!

Someone rightly summed up India’s foreign policy in Hasrat Jaipur’s famous song,

“ Uthaye Ja Unke Sitam, or jiye Ja
Yuhi muskuraye ja, or ansoo piye ja”.



The views expressed are authors own views and does not reflect of the organization.


AUTHOR: Abhinav Pandya
Abhinav Pandya is a policy analyst who specializes in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Af-Pak geopolitics. A graduate in public affairs from Cornell University, he has more more than seven years of experience in public policy, counterterrorism, electoral politics and the development sector in India and the US. Pandya has worked as a member of the United Nations’ (UN) national level specialist team to review the flagship employment guarantee scheme of India. He regularly writes for the Huffington Post, Fair Observer, Indian Military Review and Vivekananda Foundation, India’s premier think tank, on security affairs and diplomacy. He has also written an evaluation paper on the counterterrorism committee of the UN. Pandya is currently a consultant with Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur.