Does India Have An Israel Policy?

by Jaideep A Prabhu - Jan 15, 2018 10:36 AM +05:30 IST
Does India Have An Israel Policy?Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Narendra Modi/Twitter)
  • The real question is not if India has an Israel policy but if the BJP actually has a foreign policy.

There will be nothing but bonhomie for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who arrived in India on Sunday (14 December) for a six-day state visit. The Israeli delegation will visit Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati Ashram and perhaps Agra and Mumbai. While in India's financial capital, Netanyahu is scheduled to visit the Chabad House which was targeted by Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists in a horrific attack in November 2008. The diplomatic agenda, predictably, will revolve around agriculture, water management, cyber security, innovation and defence.

While there is no question about the Indian public's warmth for Israel, there have been some whispers of doubt recently about their government's intentions. Indians, by and large, admire much about the Jewish state and even those who do not are indifferent rather than hostile. Israeli diplomats do not have to waste their time countering anti-Semitism or boycott-divestment-sanctions sort of political movements in the South Asian country. That said, India's recent vote in the United Nations General Assembly essentially condemning the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel followed by its sudden cancellation of a $500 million deal to purchase Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) from the Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defence Systems has raised eyebrows in Jerusalem and among observers. The deal is apparently moving forward, according to latest media reports. Are good relations between India and Israel to be limited to Modi's occasional charming tweets to his Israeli counterpart?

Such misgivings from Jerusalem are not only perfectly understandable but justified; yet the compulsions of India's own domestic political chaos are also an important set of inputs to policy and must at least be understood if not tolerated for a fuller picture of the intentions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration.

When Modi swept into office in 2014 in an election that was just short of a landslide, policy wonks warned his euphoric supporters that the nature of government policies is continuity and incremental change rather than the desired abrupt departure from the "idea of India" espoused by the Indian National Congress. This warning has been borne out to some extent – the economy, which Modi has correctly prioritised, has seen several small yet critical positive reforms but many of the more emotive (and less dry) issues that Modi's core supporters care about such as education and culture have so far received short shrift; other matters such as terrorism and defence have seen some movement but will take a longer time to reveal the lasting impact of the new regime in Delhi.

Foreign policy, in so far as it does not pertain to the economy, appears to have been largely relegated to the boondocks. The immediate reason for this is the global experience of democracies that there are few votes in foreign affairs. India has yet to cultivate a large and vibrant foreign policy circle as might be observed in older and more developed democracies, and the community as it exists now has several foci and plenty of challenges regarding access to decision-makers, policy documentation, a bureaucratic hostility to transparency, career opportunities and funds. India's Foreign Ministry has rarely been blessed with the sort of polymath ideal for the job, either in its politicians or its bureaucrats, even when the portfolio has remained with the Prime Minister. With insufficient attention from elected officials, governance slips into maintenance mode administered by the civil service and the policies of earlier decades continue unabated.

This is visible from India's insistence on clinging to expired motifs such as strategic autonomy, a fancy 21st century upgraded phrase for non-alignment. For example, India recently courted Australia, Japan and the United States in a security quadrilateral (Quad) that observers understand is designed to balance an increasingly aggressive China and in the same week participated in a trilateral forum with Russia and China. Similarly, India's approach to the Palestinian question is based on Mohandas Gandhi's fundamental ignorance of Jewish history that was supplemented by Jawaharlal Nehru's own political inclinations; the policy was maintained as a hagiographic monument to the two men well after it had proven to be detrimental to Indian national interests.

It is no secret that India's Foreign Ministry is understaffed, and the same is true of the ruling political party when it comes to policy formulation. Besides the core issues its supporters would like addressed, foreign policy remains a step-child of the BJP’s internal thinkers. The party seems to have forgotten that to replace an ideology, an alternative is needed. In essence, the BJP has tinkered with the edifice of the Nehruvian state, and such incomplete measures occasionally fall short of the hopes of not just the citizens but even the party's own lofty rhetoric.

It is often argued that India's policy towards Israel must be tempered by the strategic considerations of its relations with other countries that may be hostile to the Jewish state. Domestic calculations regarding India's large Muslim minority must also influence how close India can drift towards Israel. The problem with this argument is two-fold: first, it implicitly suspects all Indian Muslims of treason in that they would put the well-being of Palestine and Islam above Indian interests. Second, it cannot explain the tacit Arab acceptance of not just Israel in the face of a rising Iranian threat but even Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state: there were few protests in Arab streets after US President Donald Trump's recognition of the Holy City as the capital of Israel. This flimsy argument, in addition to the bogey of seven million Indians returning from the Persian Gulf and the loss of $35 billion in remittances as Arab retaliation against India's warming ties with Israel, are unfortunately treated as gospel by an intellectually anaemic coterie in the BJP and outside. While India may not strive to become Israel's closest ally, there is plenty of room for it to move closer to the Middle Eastern democracy if it so wishes.

To repeat dozens of articles already, there are plenty of reasons for Delhi to desire closer ties. Beyond transactional considerations of trade and security, it is also important to remember that the tiny country has been among the more reliable suppliers of know-how and equipment. After the nuclear tests at Pokhran II when no one was willing to supply arms to India, Israel remained one of the very few markets still open. Similarly, the important role Israel played during Kargil is also undisputed.

Optimistic assessments of India's recent uptick in relations with Israel opine that a change in policy cannot be abrupt, especially when drastic. This is simply not true: in one of the greatest about-turns in recent diplomatic history, the US de-recognised Taiwan and recognised communist China in its stead in 1979. The entire process took seven years from Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing in February 1972 until the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations in January 1979. Such events are admittedly rare and challenging but pursuing a wrong policy for the sake of continuity is insanity. As mentioned earlier, the lack of political interest or vision within the BJP coupled with an understaffed foreign service does not allow for a nimble policy environment capable of quickly and thoroughly assessing the ramification of ideas on allies, security, economics and international obligations.

A clear-eyed view of friends, enemies, and interests has the immediate benefit of signalling to partners that you are worth investing in; a bonus is that it gives others confidence in your national purpose and dependability in forging trade and security alliances. India's waffling – sorry, strategic autonomy – will only ensure that it trails behind its rivals and fights its battles alone. France, despite being a member of NATO, has a far better track record of strategic autonomy than India ever had as a perennial "leading member" of the have-nots.

Nowadays, scholars hesitate to describe foreign systems or people as irrational. This is partly to avoid imposing the observer's perspective and values on the subject and to allow for a potential alien framework in which things might make perfect sense. However, Indian foreign policy has long veered dangerously towards that word which must not be spoken. American leadership is defined in schools of thought – Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian and Wilsonian; in India, there is only the cult of Congress and no opposition party, despite the political cacophony, has come remotely close to a complete weltanschauung comprising economic, security, social and cultural programmes. Diplomacy suffers the same fate. The real question is not if India has an Israel policy but if the BJP actually has a foreign policy.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
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