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India’s foreign policy prioritizes country’s needs

In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, the sister publication of India Herald, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was refuting the claim often made by policymakers that a country’s foreign policy is constant irrespective of the party in power. He was speaking on how India’s foreign policy has evolved in the last 10 years […]

In an interview with The Sunday Guardian, the sister publication of India Herald, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was refuting the claim often made by policymakers that a country’s foreign policy is constant irrespective of the party in power. He was speaking on how India’s foreign policy has evolved in the last 10 years of the Narendra Modi government—how from an ideologically leftward tilt, the course has been corrected to make foreign policy an India/Bharat-first policy. He gave the specific example of India’s Israel policy to make his point.

Looking at India-Israel relations, it is a fact that the current government has prioritised the need to have a strategic partnership with a defence and technology powerhouse like Israel, which had been shunned by India until 1992, when diplomatic relations were established.

Even after 1992, for fear of angering the Arab-Muslim world as well as Indian Muslims, successive Congress-led governments kept relations between the two countries in abeyance. Things started improving only when Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister for a second time. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to India took place in 2003, when Vajpayee was Prime Minister. Vajpayee lost power in 2004 and a reciprocal visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister took place 25 years after diplomatic relations were established, when Narendra Modi landed in Tel Aviv in July 2017. It is noteworthy that India’s robust diplomatic relations with Israel have had zero impact on India’s relations with the Arab-Muslim world. Instead there has been significant improvement in India-Gulf relations.

It is Prime Minister Modi’s expertise at walking the tightrope between Israel and the Arab world that has facilitated the existence of platforms such as the I2U2—India, Israel, United States and the United Arab Emirates—and the IMEC (India-Middle East Europe Corridor). Of course the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and some Gulf states under the supervision of President Donald Trump also helped. But the bottom line is that PM Modi has shown exemplary expertise at walking the tightrope between Israel and Palestine, while refusing to make common cause with only one side—Palestinian to be specific, as it was earlier. Post the 7 October 2023 blood-curdling terrorist attack on Israel by the Hamas, when India clearly spoke out against the terrorism inflicted on Israel, the response from within camps allied to the Opposition was both political and ideological.

The government was accused by rival political parties of discarding India’s well-established pro-Palestine policy. While political players were vocal, the larger ecosystem of the foreign policy establishment was equally critical, if not in public, but definitely in private. Since then much water has flown under the bridge, and the Modi government has extended a helping hand to the Palestinians once Israel invaded Gaza. New Delhi has reiterated its stand on a two-state solution, has even voted against Israel in the United Nations on a couple of resolutions. And all this without compromising its stance on Hamas-inflicted terrorism even once. India also has not made any attempt to qualify Hamas’ action against Israel by saying “but think of what Israel has been doing to Palestinians”, which, sadly, some retired Indian diplomats and bureaucrats steeped in India’s traditional geopolitical thinking are doing even now.

As an aside, the chaos on US university campuses on the war in Gaza is a completely political response emanating from the left side of the spectrum, with even anti-Semitism being justified as a counter to Israeli action on Gazans. To call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza is a legitimate demand—whether strategically viable or not, is a different matter—but no way can the Jewish population be targeted for the war that Israel is fighting in Gaza, a war that was inflicted on it by the Hamas. Hamas’ action was meant to derail the mainstreaming of Israel in the Arab world, which it was able to do to a large extent post 7 October. The bad blood in Middle East is believed to be affecting even IMEC, with work on the Israel part of the corridor stalled. But India has insulated itself enough amid the turmoil to be able to pursue the India-Middle East part. This is a completely India-focused approach, where India is exploring the potential of such a corridor to ensure all-round prosperity. At the same time, its opposition to terrorism continues rock-solid. This is a major departure from India’s largely “leftist” policy and must be appreciated.

In fact, India was never really nonaligned, even though espousing the cause. It was firmly aligned with Soviet Russia, with a strong streak of anti-Americanism defining its policy, even though the leaders, bureaucrats and diplomats who led India down that path, had their children studying or working in the US, or the West. Of course the US’ closeness to Pakistan aggravated the problem. In the process, India became majorly dependent on Russian weapons, thus putting all its eggs in one basket. It is only in the last decade that India has started to diversify the sourcing of its weapons, apart from making at home. That today, India can stand up to the West in defence of its independent policy on Ukraine, while signing the United States-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), thus ensuring the transfer of critical technology that only the US can provide, is a huge leap forward for the country. And all this because the India’s foreign policy has undergone major changes in the last 10 years.

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Atal Bihari VajpayeeEAM S JaishankarForeign PolicyIndiaisraelIsrael-Palestine conflictPM ModiTDGIndia HeraldThe Sunday Guardian