When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi received Palestine’s highest civilian award, the Grand Collar of the State of Palestine, from President Mahmoud Abbas at a ceremony in Ramallah last Friday, the irony seemed to be drowned in the flashes of hundreds of cameras that tried to capture the moment.
Modi is the first Indian PM to visit Palestine and this fact deserves some recognition, yet one can hardly ignore the overall context in which this high-level visit took place.
Even as an Indian PM makes a maiden voyage to the Palestinian territories, India’s own stance on the issue seems to have shifted rather dramatically in the four years that Modi has been at the helm of the Indian government.
Relations between India and Israel have never been better and the chemistry between Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is anything but subtle. Their bromance, which is on public display whenever they meet, is explained by the politics that they follow: Both head right-wing governments and at least some of their party members are openly Islamophobic.
Even before he became prime minister in May 2014, Modi’s affinity toward Israel was visible in the way he reached out to Tel Aviv while chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s most industrialized states. Israel has regularly sent one of the largest delegations to the leading business event organized by Modi’s Gujarat.
After taking charge, Modi has been far more overt in engaging with Israel and in particular with Netanyahu. Last July, Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Israel and, earlier this year, he received Netanyahu in his home town of Ahmedabad as part of the latter’s six-day visit to India. The two visits show how far the bilateral relationship between India and Israel has come and how far behind India’s relationship with Palestine has been left.
India has been a historic supporter of the Palestinian cause. Way back in 1938, Mahatma Gandhi, while criticizing the persecution of Jews in Germany, also spoke against their settlements in Palestine. “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French,” he said.
India’s warmth toward Palestine continued post-independence, and strengthened with the arrival of Indira Gandhi as prime minister in the late 1960s. India became one of the first countries to invite the PLO to open an office on its territory, even though many nations had branded the organization and its leader Yasser Arafat as terrorists. Arafat shared a deep, personal bond with Indira Gandhi, whom he called his “sister,” and this bond led to the opening of the first Palestinian office outside of the Arab world in New Delhi.
India’s proximity to the Palestinian cause was not only historical but also strategic, as India is home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world and, of course, because India depended and still depends on Arab countries for nearly 60 percent of its energy supplies.
Despite this warmth toward Palestine, India had not totally ignored Israel, which earned New Delhi’s recognition way back in 1950, and the relationship between the two states remained veiled at best, even though the governments on both sides had begun collaborating on defense and strategic issues.
Modi’s visit to Ramallah is merely a consolation rather than a reconciliation as the PM has overseen a warming of ties with Israel thanks to his new-found bromance with Netanyahu. -Ranvir S. Nayar
It was during the tenure of a Congress government that the relationship came out of the closet, when in 1992 India allowed Israel to open its first diplomatic office — a consulate — in Mumbai. Despite this public embrace, the relationship with Israel remained in the background and was underplayed by India.
But the slow decline in India-Palestine relations had begun. In 1999, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, of the right-wing BJP, invited his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon for his maiden visit to India. However, despite these overtures, India preferred to keep the Israeli relationship below the radar.
Things began to change rather rapidly when Modi took charge in New Delhi. India let it be known that its foreign policy would be dictated by the current national interests and not simply reflect the bygone era. The first proof of this changed policy was delivered in Geneva at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in July 2015, when India abstained from voting on a resolution criticizing Israel for its air strikes in Gaza the previous year, which reportedly killed more than 2,300 people.
Meanwhile, Modi had already announced his desire to visit Israel and he became the first Indian leader to do so in 2017, two years after Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian president to visit the nation. Also in 2017, with the arrival of Donald Trump, one of the most pro-Israel US presidents in recent history, the Indo-Israeli relationship got an indirect fillip, mainly due to the troika’s shared vision of the world.
By now, the shift in Indian policy on Palestine was complete and open, even though the country did vote for a UN General Assembly resolution criticizing Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. But this vote was symbolic and more a reflection of the residual relationship between Palestine and India than any reinvigoration of historic ties.
Just a few weeks before Netanyahu’s visit in January, India’s relationship with Palestine was seriously threatened when the Palestinian Ambassador to Pakistan shared a public platform with Hafiz Saeed, head of Lashkar-e-Taeba, a terror organization based in Pakistan. Though Ramallah recalled its envoy rapidly in order to placate India, the strain in ties was visible. Thus Modi’s visit to Palestine should be seen more as a consolation rather than reconciliation between two steadfast friends who, over the years, have drifted apart.
Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.