An Israeli soldier stands on a Merkava tank at an army deployment near the Israeli-Gaza border (AFP Photo)
The Narendra Modi government has continued an Indian tradition of issuing cloudy official statements about regional disputes in whose outcomes India has no interest. The outward result: official statements that make no one happy and generate opeds about India’s “unreadiness” for a global role.
Dig deeper, and it becomes clear the substance of policies that India pursues with the actors involved is undergirded by hard-nosed calculations of national interest. And they often run counter to the tenor of the official statements.
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The conflict between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas regime is a present day example. Another is the shadowy struggle between Russia and Ukraine, a quasi-war back in the limelight by the Malaysian Airlines tragedy.
India may have been historically close to the Palestinian cause, but New Delhi has no love for Hamas – a fundamentalist splinter of the Muslim Brotherhood unrelated to secular Palestinian nationalists like Yasser Arafat.
However, with an eye to its own Muslims and the Arab world in general, New Delhi has in past preferred to wag fingers at Israel. It then privately explains to Tel Aviv why the latter should ignore the statements and follows it up with billions of dollars of arms purchases. India, an Israeli Knesset study once noted, buys some 40 per cent of Israel’s arms exports.
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Modi, like most BJP leaders, is known to be an ardent admirer of Israel. But Rahul Gandhi is as well, though largely over the Jewish nation’s tech prowess.
The initial foreign ministry statement about Gaza was, for once, equally critical of Hamas – “India is alarmed at the cross-border provocations” of “rocket attacks” against “parts of Israel”. In 2008 the ministry put all the blame on Israel. But Tel Aviv is known to be unhappy that New Delhi did not mention Israel’s right to self-defence or declined to mention Hamas by name.
No matter what happens in Gaza, India will do nothing more than wordplay. Israel is overridingly important to India’s national security. One of the last acts of the outgoing Congress-led government was to sign a homeland security agreement with Israel further enmeshing the two at the most sensitive levels. In the real world beyond inane parliamentary debates, India will hold Israel tight and keep Hamas at the end of a bargepole.
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A similar situation arises with the Russia versus Ukraine struggle. Vladimir Putin’s Crimea land-grab and subsequent use of Russian-backed insurgents has echoes of what Pakistan and China do to India.
But India would never allow Ukraine or the downing of an airliner negatively effect its ties with Russia. The latter remains a key if waning defence supplier, an energy partner and India’s most reliable UN veto.
More importantly, New Delhi has geopolitical fish to fry with Moscow. Its anti-Taliban Afghan gambit depends on Russian arms supplies to Kabul. There is also a larger Indian concern: the more the West isolates Moscow, the more it falls into the orbit of Beijing. That single point is enough for India to play the word game in favour of Russia.
Though Putin made much of New Delhi’s support, India joined China in abstaining when the Ukraine issue came up at the UN general assembly. Indian officials talked vaguely of Russian “interests” in Ukraine. If anything, India’s language was vaguer than its underlying interests regarding Moscow.
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And there really was nothing to act as a counterbalance. Asked by a news anchor what India’s interests in Ukraine were, a former Indian envoy to Kiev fell into perplexed silence.