By Swapan Dasgupta
Opposition MPs were right to point out the apparent inconsistency in the government opposing a parliamentary resolution on the Gaza conflict and then voting against Israel at the UN Human Rights Commission last Thursday. If, as External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj maintained, India should maintain equidistance between two friends who have got embroiled in a conflict, it follows that neutrality should have been maintained in a multilateral forum as well.
Logically, India should have abstained from the UNHRC vote in Geneva. Yet, its representative joined other ‘non-aligned’ countries in censuring Israel for its allegedly disproportionate retaliation against the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. Worse, India’s Permanent Representative in the UN used strong language in the Security Council attacking Israel.
Those diplomats, both retired and serving, who have maintained that India’s position in the UN (and, for that matter, at the BRICS summit) was consistent with its earlier stand on the issue cannot be faulted. If foreign policy is judged by adherence to continuity, India’s position was consistent. Despite the change of government, India has stuck to the principle that the ever-deepening ties with Israel must exist behind a purdah; in public and for ‘secular’ domestic consumption Delhi must be seen to be endorsing the Palestinian cause.
If the Narendra Modi government has indeed taken the view that the fundamentals of Indian foreign policy must remain unchanged and that the priorities determined by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi must be preserved as a national treasure, there is nothing more to say. In that case, the only job of the Ministry of External Affairs is to safeguard the spirit of the Nehrus and Gandhis in a fast-changing world—a task better suited to theologians than diplomats.
In the 19th century Lord Palmerston suggested there are no permanent friends and enemies, only permanent interests. In the India of 2014, there appears to be a section that believes friends and enemies are constant and that only the national interest is negotiable.
The position is untenable even if the principle of Congress-decides-BJP-upholds is accepted as the gospel. In recent times it was P.V. Narasimha Rao, a Congress Prime Minister, who took bold steps to extricate Indian diplomacy from an ossified Nehruvian vision. In 1992 India and Israel entered into full diplomatic relations, overruling the objections of those who felt that this would have devastating consequences for Indian interests in West Asia. Rao signalled to the world that India has its own national priorities that go beyond friendship with Yasser Arafat. If there were misgivings in the Arab world over India cosying up to Israel, they must have been communicated in invisible ink.
In the past two decades, the relationship between India and Israel has developed exponentially. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Israel occupies a special place in India’s strategic ecosystem. Much of the relationship is wilfully kept below the radar but it is based on discretion and absolute trust.
At an individual level some Indians may not like Tel Aviv’s over-robust response to Hamas’ provocation. Others may feel that Israel needs to walk the extra mile to make the two-state solution a meaningful reality. These concerns are reflected in the debates within Israel as well. However, it is important to demarcate doubts over Israel’s no-nonsense national security policy from the visceral anti-Semitism that is the hallmark of Hamas and its backers. The former explores routes to a durable peace while the latter proceeds from the assumption that the state of Israel is illegitimate.
It is sad that Indian diplomacy is unable to make this crucial separation because ‘secular’ politics has deemed that Palestine affects the entire ‘ummah’.
As the new government gains in self-confidence and prioritises national security and economic growth, its foreign policy has to be fit for purpose. The vacuous preachiness of the past must be replaced by a focussed perusal of national interests. Last week’s UN vote was an opportunity to signal a small shift. It was muffed for two reasons. First, because a conservative bureaucracy prefers continuity over breaking new ground; and second, because there was insufficient political application of mind.
The lessons are obvious: foreign policy demands a political direction. This has not been in evidence so far.
Sunday Times of India, July 27, 2014