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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 33, August 9, 2014

Modi, Nehru and the Palestine Issue

Friday 8 August 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

India’s forthright, unambiguous statement in the UN forums identifying itself with the anguish and anger of the world community over Israel’s war crimes in Gaza has evoked a range of strange responses in the country. Those who ought to have warmly commended the Narendra Modi Government—the Congress party, Left parties, Indian Union Muslim League [IUML] and Samajwadi Party—have ducked, while the Friends of Israel [FOI] cry murder.

Ironically, both constituencies face a predicament. For the Opposition parties, the Palestine issue is directly linked to ‘vote-bank politics’, since in their understanding it works as a simple logarithm—the issue touches the emotions of the Indian Muslim mind and identifying with it is, therefore, smart electoral politics.

The crass cynicism of our political class is such that the UPA era, with the Congress and IUML in the driving seat in South Block, had witnessed an unprecedented strengthening of India-Israel relations. Clearly, these ’secular’ Opposition parties assume that the Indian Muslim is a moron who doesn’t comprehend what is going on.

As for the FOIs, the predicament is even more acute. They are shell-shocked that one more castle they built in the air as part of Modi’s foreign-policy architecture lies in shambles. Of course, just as the Opposition parties are loathe to praise Modi, the FOIs are reluctant to condemn Modi on his government’s Gaza stance.

The FOIs are desperately seeking explanations that would somehow keep their hope alive by arguing that we-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet of the ‘real’ Modi and what happened in the UN meetings in New York and Geneva is all maya.

Broadly, two streams of FOI consciousness have appeared. One is that Modi has actually not yet issued a memo to South Block mandarins on how his mind works on Israel and the mandarins in New York and Geneva idiotically performed as per old policy parameters.

The second explanation is somewhat nuanced —India’s foreign-policy bureaucracy resorted to continuity in the West Asia policies and this happened because of “insufficient political application of mind” on the part of the Modi Government. Arguably, it could be seen as a veiled criticism of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

All in all, where the two streams converge is on the single point that India’s professional diplomats are the ones at fault here for being unimaginative and pedestrian and out of sync with the spirit of the times in the brave new world of the Modi era. No surprises here. The Indian Foreign Service is used to being ridiculed publicly, since they are not known to be capable of defending themselves in such tricky circumstances.

The point is, it is highly improbable—almost out of the question—that such an important statement on the Gaza issue on the UN forums didn’t have the clearance from the PMO. Our foreign service officers are not such morons as not to have heard about EAM Swaraj’s stance in Parliament—which she took for reasons best known to her.

The FOIs are wandering in fantasyland; the Gaza statement in the UN which Indian diplomats made indeed reflects the Indian policies. Life is such that sometimes there are simple explanations possible. In this case, the MEA would most certainly have made a professional assessment of the tsunami of world opinion building up over Israel’s Gaza war crimes, and estimated how India’s best interests will be served and how isolation needed to be avoided.

Secondly, it needs to be borne in mind that although India has a strong relationship with the Arab countries and there are huge stakes involved in that relationship, that has not prevented India from forging a solid strategic partnership with Israel—and curiously, the Arab world has learned to live with it.

Therefore, there is nothing outrageous here if India expressed its solidarity with the grounds-well of Arab opinion regarding Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, while on a parallel track having strong ties with Israel. Surely, Israel is famous for its pragmatism and would understand that what India is doing is in its best interests and in line with what most countries similarly placed would be doing, including China. It’s one hundred per cent certain that Israel wouldn’t have acted any differently, either, if its vital interests were at stake. Does the Gaza statement mean that the Modi Government is rolling back India’s ties with Israel? Of course not. The FOIs are needlessly getting excited.

Thirdly, having said that, FOIs are completely wrong to assume that foreign policies have nothing to do with political morality and high principles. On the contrary, a good foreign policy must be rooted in principles and ought to be mindful of the human condition. Or else, India would have become party to the horrendous happenings in Iraq or Libya.

Expediency may be passable in private life, but in the life of nations, which is eternal, principles become important. And the heart of the matter is that India cannot identify with another country’s war crimes—even if it is helpless about preventing such happenings.

I am increasingly sensing that the government’s Gaza statement is only the latest example of the profound thinking which has gone into the foreign policies that can be expected under Modi’s leadership.

The recent BRICS summit; Modi’s meetings in Fortaleza with the Chinese and Russian Presi-dents; his reaction to the crude presentation of a ‘wish list’ of tax exemptions for Japanese companies just ahead of his projected visit to Japan; Modi’s stance on the Sri Lankan Tamil problem; his overtures to the neighboring countries including Pakistan; the great care with which India is avoiding getting sucked into an Afghan quagmire; and, of course, the bold stance in the World Trade Organisation negotiations, and that too, with just eight weeks to go before Modi walks into the White House in Washington, DC—indeed, evidence is piling up that Prime Minister Modi is holding a compass that is set with the paramount of objective of navigating India safely through the troubled waters of the prevailing international situation to its tryst with destiny.

A brief news report by the PTI (which the Indian media by and large ignored) quotes one of the influential foreign-policy thinkers in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (and a thoughtful speaker who measures his words carefully), Seshadri Chari, to the effect that the fundamental principles of India’s foreign policy have never changed since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s time.

Chari said: “What has changed is the tougher course of correction [sic] and response mechanism.” Interestingly, he asserted this while addressing a top Singapore think-tank, which is a forum where the run-of-the-mill Indian think-tanker usually holds forth passionately on the US’ pivot to Asia.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.