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India’s Ukraine and Gaza Policies Are Consistent With the Great Power Aspirations of Its Elites

In not condemning Russia and openly siding with Israel, India’s foreign policy establishment, is merely jettisoning the thin layer of politically-expedient, feel-good idealistic post-colonialism that veils an iron-fisted, pragmatism.
The barrier between Israel and Gaza. Photo:  IDF Spokesperson's Unit, Wikimedia Commons

The simultaneous wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and India’s seemingly contradictory policy responses towards them, shine a light on the drivers of Indian power: traditional great power ambitions within the US-led international order, coupled with more recent economic and civilisational self-confidence.

These drivers have been more or less hidden in plain sight since 1947, and perhaps even before Independence, under a convenient veneer of anti-colonialism, non-alignment, principled friendship with the Soviet Union (and later Russia) as well as alleged Nehruvian attachment to Soviet economic planning.

India’s foreign policy establishment, initially nurtured under British colonial rule and only periodically and pragmatically modified since, has helped craft a self-serving myth of post-colonial idealism, non-alignment, and third worldism/Global South(ism), while all the while remaining well within the mindsets, relationships, and opportunities afforded by the Anglo-American liberal international system.

That India’s power elite continues successfully to pull off this smoke-and-mirrors strategy is quite remarkable but it could not do it alone. The image is also projected by other liberal international order powers to help maintain the myth because it has served them well to have India seen that way.

“We have no eternal allies…Our interests are eternal”

Ultimately, the seemingly contradictory policies towards Ukraine and Gaza are consistent if a bird’s eye lens is taken. There are pragmatic and historical reasons for India’s stance on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine – going back to the 1950s, as we explain below. And there are reasons why the United States, which is officially unhappy with India’s stance, continues to engage ever more deeply with the emerging great power.

India’s geopolitical location – in the so-called Indo-Pacific – is a key factor in US calculations and cautious language towards India. And reasons rooted in India’s power politics and geo-economics explain why the above stance is consistent with its Israel-Gaza policy.

In contrast, there are those who argue that India is driven by its position as a leader of the Global South, as a postcolonial state, as a member of the BRICS+ that’s challenging the US-led liberal order. Yet others suggest that India is a US satellite especially in its attitudes towards China, and its membership in a growing number of multilateral groupings in the Indo-Pacific region that exclude and seek to ‘contain’ and subordinate China.

The reality is more complex and reveals a sophisticated foreign policy establishment, embedded in a thin layer of politically-expedient feel-good idealistic post-colonialism that veils an iron-fisted pragmatic great power in the making.

What British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston said in the House of Commons in 1848, applies to India today: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Also read: Flashpoints in Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen and Taiwan Point to a Global War in the Making

India supports normalisation with Israel, de-hyphenation of Israel-Palestine

Regarding Israel’s catastrophic war in Gaza – in regard to which the International Court of Justice has ordered Israel to refrain from and prevent genocide – India condemned Hamas’ attacks of October 7, 2023, then refused, for three months, to support a ceasefire resolution at the UN, and has since called for a two state solution in general terms. This is for pragmatic reasons of power politics including a long-term shift towards delicate bilateral relationship building across the region, including Israel, Arab states, and Iran.

Palestine has been compartmentalised and relegated, in service of Indian elite interests, “de-hyphenated”, separated from India’s relations with Israel. As an MEA spokesperson noted in January in response to a question about India’s position on South Africa’s genocide charge against Israel at the ICJ: “Our position on the conflict, the Israel-Hamas conflict is… it has been consistent and steadfast. We have condemned terrorism, we have called for release of hostages, we have sought protection of civilians and… we have called for provision of humanitarian assistance and of course we stand for a long-term two-state solution.”

Yet, convenient mythologies persist 

There is an enduring perception in strategic circles that PM Narendra Modi has riled America, its close strategic partner, and the European Union (EU), by refusing to unreservedly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and failing to call the Kremlin an aggressor. New Delhi also abstained from voting against Russia in the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council.

The Modi government has openly defied western sanctions against Russia by indulging in opportunistic purchases of cheap Russian oil. In 2023, India was the largest buyer of Russian seaborne crude, accounting for 38% of these exports. Many commentators have been unduly perturbed about India inconsistency in supporting the so-called rule-based order especially when the trans-Atlantic powers are focused on making Russia capitulate.

However, Modi has not been as brazen as the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orban, who has called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “a military operation” and not war. India has provided tacit support to Putin simultaneously reiterating conventional diplomatic wisdoms like ‘upholding international law and national sovereignty, while at the same time pushing for a pragmatic and permanent solution to the conflict.’

Consequently, those who were hoping that New Delhi, because of its alignment with the United States, would declare the Kremlin a geo-political burden are disappointed. The Russia-Ukraine war instead of accelerating has retarded the decline in India-Russia relationship. India stood with Russia for both strategic as well as pragmatic reasons. Since the mid-1950s Russia has vetoed every move by the US and its allies in the United Nations Security Council to browbeat India on the Kashmir issue.

In the mid-1960s, Russia supported India’s defence needs. It mediated peace at the end of Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. In the 1971 Bangladesh war, Moscow again helped New Delhi ward off the threat posed by a US Navy carrier battle group in the Bay of Bengal.

Indo-Russian nuclear cooperation has been the lynchpin of the bilateral ties. It is thanks to decades of India-Russia naval engagement that today India is one of the few countries in Asia that can build a nuclear submarine. Russia may have joined the rest of the UN Security Council in condemning India for its 1998 nuclear tests but it refused to impose sanctions on India, unlike the US, Japan and others.

Notwithstanding the criticism levelled against India in the western media, the US State Department, more concerned with India as a counterpoise to China, has been accommodative of India’s reluctance to decouple from Russia. In July last year, the US Congress approved a waiver to India against the punitive Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions for its purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia.

CAATSA authorises the US administration to impose sanctions on countries that purchase major defence hardware from Russia. These sanctions had come into force in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Things are not always what they seem in international relations. It is not always necessary for partners and allies to converge on every issue. In the conduct of international relations, short-term tactical divergences between partners and allies may be necessary for larger strategic convergence. We must consider the deeper tides rather than surface ripples.

A very special double act shows how it works

Look at post-war Anglo-American relations. The former colonial power recognised the communist regime in China in 1950 while the latter was completely opposed to Beijing’s entry in the United Nations.

In the mid-1950s when the US started poking China in Tibet and Taiwan, London was Beijing’s biggest trading partner. Britain’s subtle pro-China stance was not necessarily antithetical to America’s larger strategic needs to woo China away from the Soviet Union, while the policy also helped it to protect its territorial possessions within China. Britain could take a divergent stand partly because China was not America’s peer competitor at that stage.

India’s engagement with Russia cannot be viewed as completely selfish. New Delhi’s involvement with Moscow is essential for America too as it seeks to woo Russia back into the western camp and split the Sino-Russian “no-limits partnership”. Washington is unlikely to permit similar engagement by New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific where China, its peer competitor, is to be tamed.

Different region, same principles

India’s foreign policy stance on Israeli military action and large-scale killing of Palestinians has been equally criticised by many used to seeing India take an unequivocal stand in favour of Palestinians. Although India has issued politically correct statements in support of a two-state solution for resolution of the long-standing Israel-Palestine conflict, its heart is with the Israeli state and even the Netanyahu regime. As the Israeli bombing moved though gear, New Delhi pointedly abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly resolution that urged a humanitarian truce in Gaza on the grounds that the resolution did not condemn the terror attacks of October 7.

India sees Israel as an important partner in its quest to indigenise defence technology as well as a ally in its competition for new trade routes with China. New Delhi is looking forward to the development of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), a multimodal transportation corridor stretching across the Arabian Sea from India to Israel via the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan to counter China’s increasing presence in West Asia affairs. IMEC is backed by the United States (US) along with the European Union (EU), mainly to counter China’s increasing footprint in West Asia and curtail Iranian ambitions.

The BJP government has built on the India’s earlier strategy of transforming bilateral relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Israel and Iran – simultaneously. These relationships are now more comprehensive than oil-related links – spanning investments, technology collaborations in food security and renewable energy.

The Gulf region is now the source of India’s third- and fourth-largest trading partners (UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively), as India-Israel trade volume exceeded  $10.1 billion (excluding defence) in 2022-2023. India has proven attractive to a region seeking to diversify away from oil and energy.

Such increasing convergence of strategic and economic interests between India, Israel, and the UAE led them to sign a quadrilateral agreement with the United States (US) known as I2U2, in October 2021. The focal point is mitigating global challenges: India, Israel and the UAE initiated plans in 2022 for a India-Middle East Food Corridor , followed by the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC), launched at the September 2023 G20 Summit in New Delhi, aiming to bolster economic integration between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; again, challenging China’s BRI.

Israel and Palestine are now ‘de-hyphenated’ in India foreign policy – compartmentalised, much as they are in the attitudes of the Gulf states since the inking of the Abraham Accords in 2021. The current conflict however will likely have multiple effects – cooling further bilateral developments with Israel for fear of Arab reactions, while solidifying further India and Israel’s anti-terror cooperation. Rising tensions in the Red Sea are also driving increased maritime ‘security’ cooperation.

At times New Delhi’s foreign policy approaches may seem to be in divergence and defiance of the west. However when it comes to China, there is no ambiguity in New Delhi’s mind that its big neighbour is a monster that has to be tackled in collaboration with the United States and its allies. Washington doesn’t mind Modi’s flirtations with Putin as long as he is willing to join the chorus in condemning and containing the Communist Party of China and its leadership.

Also read: Backstory: India Is on the Wrong Side of History on Gaza, and the Media Has Not Helped

Bye bye Nehruvian symbolic idealism, hello India First

Two elements that guide New Delhi’s recent foreign policy choices are its efforts to jettison overt displays of Nehruvian idealism normally associated with Indian foreign policy and to openly declare its ambitions as a great power capable of guiding the destinies of the global order.

The ideological element in India’s foreign policy comes from its “India First” approach that prioritises national interests over largely symbolic expressions of morality in conduct of international relations. This is reminiscent of Donald Trump’s muscular but no-war approach. Therefore, under Prime Minster Modi, India may conduct ‘surgical strikes’ but is likely to refrain from full-fledged war.

Though predictions of an emerging ‘Indian century’ maybe somewhat premature, the ambition has been there since the creation, long before the current rebranding of India as a civilisational power.

India’s Ukraine and Gaza war responses are consistent not contradictory. What conventional observers call hypocrisy should be called by its true name: self-interested elite power politics.

Dr Atul Bhardwaj is an honorary research fellow in the department of international politics at City, University of London. He is the author of India-America Relations (1942-62): Rooted in the Liberal International Order (Routledge, 2018). 

Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics and associate dean of research in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at City, University of London, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is a non-resident International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad, and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century. He is currently writing a book on the history, politics, and powers of the US Foreign Policy Establishment. 

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