Modi Foreign Policy Fumble Amid Israel-Hamas Conflict

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | 19 November 2023
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India's position on the Hamas-Israel confrontation is quite different from that of its stance on the Russia-Ukraine war

Mr Modi must have realised that his impromptu response to Hamas' October 7 attack was right in his own eyes and that of his party, and even in the eyes of the Western world, but India cannot afford to take an overtly partisan position. (File Image: PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi went all out to condemn Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7. It reflected the ideological bias of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Mr Modi was conforming to the party’s long-standing position, which goes back to the days of the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. The right-wing Hindutva party saw the Palestine-Israel question as one between Muslims and Jews, and it came from its domestic anti-minority stance, which really translates into anti-Muslim. It was also less complicated for Mr Modi to stand up and stand with Israel because the attack came from Hamas, an Islamist group that has started out as a Palestinian wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas was also a terrorist organisation in the American list.

The BJP’s doctrinal preference for Israel over Palestine was strengthened by Hamas attacking civilians in southern Israel, which included women, children and old people, and also taking more than 200 of them hostage. There could not have been a clearer case for righteous indignation of the right-wing folk in India. The spectre of Islamic terrorism came alive once again, well over 20 years after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, attributed to Al Qaeda, and almost 15 years since the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba’s 26/11 attack on Mumbai. Hamas is being seen as the return of the ghost of Al Qaeda.

Mr Modi must have realised that his impromptu response to Hamas’ October 7 attack was right in his own eyes and that of his party, and even in the eyes of the Western world, but India cannot afford to take an overtly partisan position. So, the external affairs ministry’s spokesman issued a statement on the civilian deaths and injuries on the Palestinian side in Israel’s retaliatory response. It was a plain fact that ever since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006 after it won the majority of seats in the Palestinian elections, the armed fight that Hamas carried out against Israel resulted in the death of civilians in Palestine even as Israel has responded to Hamas’ guerrilla tactics. It was also evident the violence unleashed by Israel’s military might was disproportionate.

Mr Modi tried to balance his vocal support for Israel, and he counts Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as a close friend, who is hugely unpopular in his home country, with calls to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. There was also a tacit understanding that many of the Arab countries in the region, including Egypt and the UAE, did not much like Hamas. Despite their secret dislike for Hamas, however, the Arab governments could not ignore the plight of Palestinian civilians caught in the war between Hamas and Israel. The Indian government then made a tepid announcement of token humanitarian aid to the civilians in Gaza in late October.

In the "2+2" India-US meeting of the foreign and defence ministers in New Delhi last Friday, India followed the American line of supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, which included its latest depredations in Gaza, and refusing to call for a ceasefire. While US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that too many Palestinians have died, India chose to remain silent.

India’s position on the Hamas-Israel confrontation is quite different from that of its stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, which broke out in February 2022. India had consistently refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because it felt that the issue was complicated. And external affairs minister SubrahmanyamJaishankar displayed a mix of candour and abrasiveness when he lectured European leaders, mainly those of the European Union, on why Europe’s war was not the world’s war, and that India was more concerned about the situation in the Indo-Pacific. But this position was in contrast to the BJP’s generally leaning towards the West, and how it has been trying to move away from Russia. The old BJP/Jan Sangh position was against Russia during the Cold War, when Russia was under Communist rule.

But the Narendra Modi government could not shake away the fact how economic interests bound India to Russia, especially in the import of oil. India benefited too by keeping its oil imports from Russia alive despite the Western economic sanctions.

The Modi government is more in alignment with the West on the war in Gaza because it knows the fault lines in the Palestinian territories and in West Asia generally. The Palestinian Authority is in the hands of Fatah, and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestine. Fatah is no friend of Hamas. Egypt did not want refugees from Gaza to find shelter in Sinai, the territory that Israel had seized in the 1967 war and returned to Egypt after the Camp David peace accord between the two countries. The Arab governments have not condemned the Hamas attack and they had been seeking a de-escalation from the beginning, but they are not condemning Israel outright. This gives a lot of wiggle room for India and the BJP government of Mr Modi. The Hindutva whisper campaign about Islamic terrorism in the wake of the Hamas attack is alive on the social media. Mr Modi and the BJP will derive maximum mileage out of it in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

The ingrained Islamophobia of the BJP and of Mr Modi’s government will have a field day in the weeks and months to follow. India might get into the top three economies of the world by the end of the decade, but it will remain a political pygmy in global affairs because it fights shy of giving a moral tinge to its foreign policy, which will mark it out as a global leader. India should have said openly that Ukraine was a sovereign country and Russia was wrong in attacking it. It should be saying that Hamas’ attack was unacceptable, but Israel’s position vis-à-vis Palestine was also unacceptable. It would only enhance India’s position but then Mr Modi is busy moulding a Hindu India. Even as a Christian West has realised that it has to look beyond its religious identity to be able to influence the world, India under Mr Modi will have to realise that they have to break out of the Hindutva cocoon if it wants to make the country a big player in the world. The size of the economy will not help. Japan is a good example of a country which has a powerful economy but which has remained a marginal player in global affairs. Is India preparing to be a new Japan, an economic giant but nothing more.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst.

This article was originally published on Deccan Chronicle.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.