UN Jerusalem vote: Why India went against the US
What do we make of India’s vote in the UN general assembly (UNGA) condemning the US for moving its embassy to, and recognizing, Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?
The explanation trotted out for the UN vote seems to be based on six assumptions. The first of these is the belief that Arab states would somehow penalize India for voting with the US on this issue. Variously this involves either an oil embargo or action against the Indian diaspora in the Gulf. This is a problematic proposition. The idea of a free floating energy market is a core element of Pax Americana—so much so that by 1974, the US had made some very unsubtle threats to use force against the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) to break the oil embargo that had triggered a full-blown energy crisis. Since then, Opec has not used oil embargos to support geopolitical goals, though it has used excessive oil production and low prices to hurt Russia and Iran (countries that challenge the Pax Americana) economically.
The clearest demonstration of this was in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. India’s position was openly hostile to the coalition formed to liberate Kuwait with zero consequence. The Indian diaspora faced no mass deportations, nor indeed threats to that effect from the Gulf states . All this, of course, ignores the fact that such actions would be impossible by US allies against a country voting with the US, completely disproportionate to a UNGA vote and that too for a cause long since written off by the Arab world as a waste of its time.
The second reason given is that Indian Muslims would punish the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for voting with Israel. Again, this is shorn of any cause-effect analysis, based on the simplistic assumptions. One such is the assumption that Indian Muslims choose who to vote for based on foreign policy, an absurdity in a country where no one really cares about foreign policy, as our electoral history shows.
Third is the belief that the Palestinians would view the Indian vote favourably. The problem here is that Palestinian goodwill or the lack thereof means zero to India—tangibly or esoterically. This is, after all, a country that votes for every obnoxious anti-India resolution on Kashmir that the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) comes up with periodically, and in terms of goods and services means exactly nothing to India. In effect, this would be like prioritizing ties with Swaziland (with a gross domestic product similar to Palestine) over ties with the US.
Fourth is the argument that India’s vote reflects its concern over the sovereignty of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, through which China is building infrastructure. This is bogus, for the simple reason that by this measure, the then national security adviser Shivshankar Menon’s March 2014 statement that “Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine”, justifying Russia’s ongoing aggression there (à Pakistan in Kashmir in 1947), was enough to erode Indian claims of sovereignty over Kashmir.
Fifth is the belief that Israel will ignore this slight. In the normal course of things, that may very well have been the case. Israel is, after all, quite used to posturing and ridiculous partisanship. As the then foreign minister of Israel, Abba Eban, had summed it up, “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions”. The problem here is that in under a month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be arriving on a state visit to Delhi. Given the unprecedented reception Prime Minister Narendra Modi got in Israel, this vote is extremely bad manners, that causes him embarrassment back home, over the logic of prioritizing India.
All this brings us to the sixth and final rationale—that the US would ignore India’s vote. Indeed, given this vote was about scoring rhetorical points, logic would dictate that the US would ignore it. Except we have a president in office who is not willing to do that any more, as he himself has said and demonstrated on several occasions. What makes this threat tangible is the fact that he is willing to link up issues in international negotiations that were not up for linking before, such as trade and jobs with geopolitics , in a way previous presidents were shy to. In the final analysis, what was rhetorically and politically unimportant to the Arabs, was politically critical to the US president and we failed to understand this.
While one can doubt the positives of voting with the US, none would have questioned the wisdom of abstention. Yet we chose the doctrinaire path with the maximum negatives and negligible positives typical of the ministry of external affairs’ usual lack of academic rigour or research. More importantly, what has become clear is that Modi is increasingly trapped in a bureaucratic echo chamber of his own creation. He conflates activity with achievement and has been convinced that foreign policy begins and ends with state visits that leave him none the wiser (or indeed curious) about the politics of the target state. In other words, as Sir Humphrey Appleby put it in Yes Minister, he has been “housetrained”. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, at what point is our foreign policy going to become responsible and responsive, who is going to initiate it, and is the prime minister going to start acting prime ministerial or simply be content to play the role of chief mouser to South Block?
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
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