Israel visit: In reorienting India's foreign policy, Narendra Modi is responding to history and realpolitik
As India grows strategically closer to the US, its foreign policy too is aligning slowly but surely with the American axis.
Narendra Modi is a man with a deep sense of history. Anyone who listened to his GST-eve midnight speech at the Parliament's Central Hall during the special session on Friday would notice his effort to place himself at the crossroads of history as a change-agent authoring a new chapter in the nation-building process. This is not an isolated effort but another reinforcement of the narrative that he is a milestone man bent on building a 'new India'. Whether or not that narrative is justified is a debate not central to this argument.
We note that foreign policy lies at the centre of the structural changes he is trying to initiate. Old axioms are being questioned, tested for efficacy in a rapidly changing global order and cast aside if found to be incompatible. His upcoming Israel visit — the first by an Indian prime minister since 25 years of full bilateral diplomatic relations — is one such epochal event that may trigger further intuitive changes.
As India grows strategically closer to the US, its foreign policy too is aligning slowly but surely with the American axis. A reorientation is under way as India shakes off its non-alignment stance to strike a multi-alignment pose but with a tilt towards US sphere of influence.
This is evident from the way Modi is courting European middle powers Germany, France and Spain as a hedge against the uncertainty of Donald Trump-era but simultaneously striving for greater synergy with the US and its key allies like Israel.
It would be a mistake, however, to see these changes as the imprimatur of a man trying to replace the Nehruvian order just because he is in a position to do so. The visit to Israel, for instance, isn't context free. It is the natural culmination of the gradual shift in India's Israel policy and an inevitable response to realities that confront us.
While India had voted against Israel in July 2014 when Modi was yet to warm up to his seat, exactly a year later we notice the first pronounced deviation. New Delhi was one among only five countries to abstain from voting against Tel Aviv in Geneva on a UNHRC resolution seeking action against Israel for "committing alleged war crimes" in Gaza. As The Hindu had noted in a report, "41 countries voted in favour of the resolution against Israel, while only the US voted against it."
This was repeated in March 2016 when India again abstained from voting against Israel at the UN, though, as The Wire had noted then, "at the same time, New Delhi voted in favour of four other resolutions criticising Israel".
We see here a gradual, calibrated shift — not a sudden one — necessitated by several factors such as a more realistic approach towards foreign policy, an understanding of India and Israel's growing interdependence, New Delhi's strategic anxieties arising out of China's rise, the coagulating Sino-Russian-Pakistan axis and a refusal to view bilateral ties solely through the spectrum of Palestinian cause.
Modi, viewed from this perspective, is interjecting oodles of realism into our foreign policy. In some ways, it is also a honest trajectory. Often in the past India's geopolitical moves — guided by a moralist, idealist tradition — were marked by blatant hypocrisy. For four long decades, India paid lip service to the Palestinian cause while pursuing ties with Israel under the hood. It is not just the moral hypocrisy of identifying with the cause of an undivided Palestine ignoring Jewish nationalism when it had seen a partition along communal lines in its own territory (which the Congress had accepted) but also a false binary that even recognition of ties with Israel will upset our ties in Arab world. International ties are never guided by idealism.
This flawed, hypocritical approach was called out by former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, who in 1992 took the first step by normalising ties with Israel in 1992. But if geostrategic challenges at the end of Cold War prompted Rao to author the first radical change, Modi — who faces an uncertain global order due to a retreating US and the rise of a revanchist China — has responded by growing closer to Israel, a country with which India has strong defence and counterterrorism ties.
There are bound to be repercussions and there has been. Pakistan is growing restive as Modi and Trump speak in unison about Islamabad's rent-seeking strategy using terrorism as bargaining chip and China is growing aggressive as a closer Indo-US synergy threatens its expansionism.
Once again, though, this is not an isolationist change. If Modi is seeking to dehyphenate Israel and Palestine by not paying a trip to Ramallah, he has done it after an arduous courting of Arab world and carefully reinforcing India's security and trade interests in West Asia.
As JNU professor PR Kumaraswamy writes in The Indian Express, "PM has actively engaged with the Middle East, beginning with his visit to the UAE in August 2015 and following on with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar the following year. A G-20 meeting took him to Turkey in November 2014 and he hosted Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi twice. He has met Saudi and Emirati leaders often. Only last month, he hosted Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. By keeping Israel as a last major West Asia destination, Modi has neutralized many negative voices both within the country and in the region."
It is time we move out the false binaries in our foreign policy. Modi's upcoming trip, that has already generated huge interest in Israel's public, political and strategic circles — with one newspaper calling him "world's most important PM", has the chance to take the relationship out of closet and build a mature partnership based on shared interests and realpolitik — one that is rooted in history. We have a 2,000-year-old tie to nurture.
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