Indian PM Modi's support of Israel creates fresh flashpoint ahead of elections

Reiterates New Delhi 'firmly stands' with Israel and skips any mention of the deaths in Palestine or calls for restraint

Student activists from Nationalists of Jadavpur University hold placards in solidarity with Israel, at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. AP
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government’s explicit support of Israel in its war against Palestine has sharply polarised India’s conservatives and liberals and could become a flashpoint issue ahead of the national elections, experts say.

Mr Modi on Tuesday strongly condemned terrorist attacks on Israel and reiterated that New Delhi “firmly stands” with Israel, his second solidarity message amid a fierce counter-offensive against Gaza which has already led to over 1,000 deaths in the enclave. Around 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in last week's terror attack.

Although India’s foreign office has not issued a statement on the latest escalation, leaders from Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have been actively showing support to Israel.

Mr Modi too has skipped any mention of the deaths in Palestine or calls for restraint.

“It is not about supporting Israel or Palestine but condemning the act of terror. It is not a war between two countries. The way it has happened and done on the ground, children are killed and put in cages, and hostages have been taken up. Who has died, and who are the sufferers? Israelis,” RP Singh, BJP national spokesperson, told The National.

“Hamas has hijacked the Gaza strip and is worse than ISIS. They started it so we can’t say people from both sides have been killed,” Mr Singh said.

But the government’s support has led to a political slugfest in the country where opposition parties have taken a more nuanced line on the decades-long conflict by condemning the attacks by Hamas and supporting the Palestinian cause.

“United Nations must enforce a stop to this. The UN must ensure the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, withdrawal of all Israeli illegal settlements and occupation of Palestinian lands and implement the ‘Two Nation-State’ solution,” Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said.

The Indian National Congress, which has given three prime ministers to the nation, as well as left-wing and regional parties, has called for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and said it has a long-standing support “for the rights of the Palestinian people to land, self-government and to live with dignity and respect”.

“We absolutely stand with Israel when they’re being attacked in such a horrendous way but also take the broader view in mind, our traditional position has always been that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live in security and dignity, behind safe borders in their own lands,” Shashi Tharoor, former junior foreign minister and Congress parliamentarian, said.

“The fact that in the case of the Palestinians, they've been suffering a dehumanising occupation for a very long time. And for 75 years, there has been no durable solution to their plight … we don't want to lose sight of that,” he said.

But the BJP has also accused Congress of supporting Hamas, saying that it is trying to appease Muslims to win votes.

“Congress has not spoken out on Hamas and it shows their ecosystem. They’re trying vote bank politics … to appease Muslims. It is in their DNA to seek political advantage in this situation,” Mr Singh said.

India, of late, has been following an independent and neutral diplomatic policy on global conflicts – the biggest example being the Russia-Ukraine war where New Delhi focused on “cessation of hostilities” rather than condemning Russia or Ukraine for committing violent crimes.

But Mr Modi’s statements don't just contradict his government’s diplomatic maneuvrability on sticky issues. They also represent a U-turn on India’s policy on the Middle East, where New Delhi for decades exhibited a balanced approach, particularly on the issue of Israel and Palestine.

Strengthened relationship

India was among a handful of non-Arab nations that voted against the creation of Israel under a UN partition plan for Palestine, in the General Assembly in 1948.

Decades later, New Delhi shared good ties with Yasser Arafat and recognised his PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, only recognising Israel in 1992, when it opened an embassy in Tel Aviv.

After Mr Modi came to power in 2014, New Delhi gradually reassessed the Israel-Palestine issue and strengthened its relationship with Israel, particularly in defence and strategic areas. Mr Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in 2017.

Israel’s and India’s narrative on “terrorism” complement each other and Mr Modi has been at the forefront of building a global consensus on eradicating “extremism” while using it domestically for electoral gains, including Pakistan, that New Delhi says is supporting militants in Kashmir.

“India has never recognised Hamas, an internationally proscribed terror group and it has consistently said that terrorism is the one most important challenge the world faces, so you have to look at this issue through that prism,” Harsh V Pant, vice president, studies and foreign policy at Delhi based Observer Research Foundation, told The National.

“This attack which is very unprecedented also leads us into uncharted territories. What if tomorrow, there is a non-state actor that is operating in India's vicinity with Pakistani help that decides to do the same,” he says.

A Pakistan-backed terror group attacked hotels and public places in Mumbai in 2008, killing more than 300 people.

Mr Pant says that while the government will look at the escalation through the lens of India’s long-term interests in the Middle East, it would certainly have implications back home in the elections next year when Mr Modi will stand for a third term.

“There will be a political contestation around it because certainly Congress in the statement apparently does not talk about terror. And BJP officially has not come out with a statement, the prime minister has expressed solidarity with Israel.”

“In that sense, there will be a framing of it by different political parties looking at the political support base at home. Both sides will use each other's views and mobilise their support base.”

Updated: October 12, 2023, 2:00 AM