As tensions continue to escalate in the Middle East, diplomacy too has picked up pace with US President Joe Biden deciding to visit Israel to assess Israeli plans. After the attack on a Gaza hospital last night left 500 dead and amid reports of an impending Israeli ground offensive, there are growing concerns about the humanitarian toll and its long term costs. There is the issue of hostages and of providing aid to Gaza that must be shaping the calculus of Israel and its allies. Iran, for its part, has made it clear that Israel will not be allowed to act in the Gaza Strip without consequences and has warned of “pre-emptive action.”
The world is starkly divided on the issue with the emerging geopolitical faultlines further getting solidified. These divisions are also getting manifested within nations. In the West, countries are struggling to contain domestic schisms, with some even facing terror incidents as passions get inflamed and troublemakers try to make the most of it. In this battle, universities in the West have emerged as the new battlegrounds as competing narratives contend with each other.
Given India’s growing stakes in the Middle East, it too can’t remain immune to the reverberations from its extended neighbourhood. India’s burgeoning ties with key stakeholders in the Middle East has been one of the most remarkable foreign policy achievements of the Modi government. For a Prime Minister who is often only looked at through the prism of Hindu nationalism, building strong ties with the Arab states has resulted in New Delhi achieving a distinct clout in the region. Those who want to use the ideological lens often emphasize how Narendra Modi became the first Prime Minister to visit Israel and bring the relationship out into the open. But India-Israel ties had been growing steadily since the early 1990s. Modi simply brought it out of the closet. His real contribution is to make India’s Arab partners recognize the need to build a relationship with India that can respond to the challenges of the 21st century, instead of just being an extension of our religious heritage.
Modi’s initial response to the attacks on Israel have generated a peculiar response in most quarters. His critics were rather too quick to point out what they saw a one-sided response. Why would he not talk about the Palestinians, they thundered. Others have seen in this a significant shift in India’s traditionally balanced Middle East policy. But here was a leader responding to a vicious terror attack on a friendly nation. In that moment, expressing solidarity with Israel was the least that any Indian leader could have done. Imagine, after a terror attack on India, when Indian leaders seek solidarity from our friends, they being told that this is a response to New Delhi’s own actions! India has been in such situations in the past and it knows that how it feels to fight terror alone. Modi’s response was neither one-sided nor was it a significant shift in Indian policy. It was an expression of support to a friend that has always been there for India.
When the Ministry of External Affairs released its statement on the crisis, it made it perfectly clear that New Delhi views the strikes by Hamas on Israeli cities as “terror attacks,” while reaffirming India’s long-standing position, and advocating negotiations towards establishing a “sovereign, independent and viable” state of Palestine living side-by-side at peace with Israel. India has maintained this position despite the pulls and pressures of changing regional dynamics. While Modi was indeed the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, he was also the first Prime Minister to visit the West Bank city of Ramallah in Palestine in 2018. For all the talk of supporting the Palestinian cause, no other Indian Prime Minister had made this move.
It was unfortunate that Congress Party’s initial statement that did not mention the terror attacks by Hamas at all and gave the perception of there being a partisan divide on this issue in India. Though the Congress has since changed its position and denounced Hamas, for many around the world domestic polarisation in India became the primary prism to understand the Indian stand on the crisis.
But the Indian approach towards the Middle East is increasingly being driven by the transformational changes being ushered in the Arab world and New Delhi’s critical role in that order. The attacks by Hamas are aimed at dismantling the nascent shift in the region, which has the potential to change regional politics in fundamental ways. New Delhi was one of the first actors to recognize this shift and evolve its foreign policy accordingly, thereby moving beyond religion in defining the parameters of its engagement with regional stakeholders.
There are many in India who are concerned that the country does not seem to be with the Global South when it comes to the ongoing crisis. But it cannot be any other way, given the high stakes involved. India as one of the long-standing victims of terrorism, has often stood alone in challenging and questioning the world (even the West) when it comes to double standards on terrorism.
As tensions soar in the Middle East, Indian diplomacy will certainly be under pressure. But when it comes to the region, this has always been a persistent challenge. What is new is New Delhi’s desire to play a constructive and pegmatite role in the region in sync with evolving strategic realities.
Harsh V. Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. He is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is also the Director (Honorary) of the Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.