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Ab Ki Bar, Confused Sarkaar

By SHASHI THAROOR

No sooner than I had published my analysis of the Modi government’s foreign policy U-turns than the government obligingly decided to provide further confirmation of my thesis.  Just a few days after Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had attempted to prevent discussion of the Gaza crisis in Parliament, and barely 48 hours after she had responded to the Rajya Sabha by stressing that India would not take any position on the tragedy there that might vitiate our relations with Israel, the Government did its latest about-face. It voted for a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on Gaza that “strongly condemned” Israel’s “prolonged occupation” of Palestinian Territory, and condemned “in the strongest terms” the “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations” in Gaza.

Such language, endorsed by 29 countries and opposed by only one, the United States (as usual), though 17 nations preferred to abstain, was entirely consistent with India’s traditional positions on the Palestinian issue, which have remained more or less the same for the last three decades. Our position can be summarised thus: strong support for the Palestinian cause, opposition to Israeli occupation and illegal Jewish settlements, but acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist, and support for a peace process that would conclude with two states living side by side in peaceful co-existence. Voting for UN resolutions that condemned Israeli excesses was in keeping with this policy, and long-time followers of Indian diplomacy would have felt no surprise in seeing how New Delhi voted in Geneva.

But after listening to the Foreign Minister in recent days signalling a new even-handedness between the two sides (“both are our friends,” she declared, equating the 700 innocent civilian victims, including 170 little children, with those who had killed them) the vote did come as a surprise. The resolution not only avoided all pretence of equal blame, it explicitly suggested that “the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since 13 June 2014…may amount to international crimes”. War crimes are not something you expect “friends” to be happy to be accused of.

Israelis and their sympathisers, who had expected – indeed, been led to expect – something different from the BJP, will be told that in fact the Modi government’s position was carefully calibrated: after all, it didn’t co-sponsor the Pakistani resolution, merely voted for it, and it took care to ensure that reference was included to Israeli civilian victims (of whom there have been precisely two).  Indeed, the resolution “condemns all violence against civilians wherever it occurs”. Israel would clearly have preferred that a government professing even-handedness abstain, as most Europeans, some African countries and the Republic of Korea did. India rightly thought that would be too much of a departure from its traditional position and its normal pattern of voting, and went with its usual vote.

So India was consistent, but the BJP was not. The Government of India behaved as all Governments of India for the last thirty years have done. The BJP, with its words and actions in Delhi, its joining the Fortalezza consensus of BRICS countries and now its vote at the UNHRC, has signalled complete incoherence on its Israel policy.

Israeli apologists are justified in pointing out, of course, that their military action was in response to an incessant fusillade of Hamas-fired rockets raining down upon their citizenry. But these rockets, thwarted by the impressive solidity of the anti-missile defence system called the “Iron Dome”, caused little damage and no loss of life this year. Israel has every right to defend itself, but its right to do so cannot trample on the basic human rights of others. An air assault and military invasion that has killed 700 people and injured or maimed over 4000 more is grossly disproportionate to the wrong it is claiming to set right. The BJP, however, has refused to see this so far. Its diplomatic representatives have. This is the incoherence.

The resolution India voted for says three other things the Israelis will resent. It sets up an international commission of inquiry, but it is a foregone conclusion that the Government of Israel will not co-operate with such a commission or facilitate its work. It asks Switzerland, as custodian of the Geneva Conventions, to call a conference of all contracting parties – that would be a prelude to finding Israel guilty of war crimes, and the Israelis will leave the world in no doubt that making this demand is an unfriendly act.

Finally, it calls for an end to Israel’s blockade (the resolution terms it an “illegal closure”) of the Gaza Strip. This, of course, is a long-standing Hamas demand, and it is also Hamas’ only precondition to accepting a ceasefire.

So Israel will portray the UN resolution as giving aid and comfort to its enemies, and those who voted for it as dupes of Hamas terrorism. It is a strange place to be for a BJP leadership that just a few days ago didn’t even want Indian parliamentarians to express their concern at the unfolding humanitarian tragedy, lest it offend Israel.

As it struggles to come to terms with the unfamiliar demands of being in power and acting for India on the world stage, it’s clear the BJP will find itself in a  lot more strange places in the months to come.

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