The tortuous, incestuous and backstabby ethnic politics of the world’s second-largest and second-noisiest democracy has recently been convulsed by debate about the term “Israel-firsters”. It was being used for people accused of continually discovering reasons why US foreign policy should bend to Israel’s interests – and who were being held responsible for the thunderous, warlike drumbeat accompanying increasing tensions with Iran. Everyone then recalled the extremely problematic history of the term, first used in the 1970s by some pretty nasty anti-Semites, and it was quite rightly dropped like a hot potato.
I bring up these distant squabbles over identity and foreign policy partly because that insistent drumbeat began to be heard on our shores last week, with the attack on an Israeli diplomatic vehicle. Israel’s PM blamed Iran — though our own security establishment was quite unusually reticent this time. Immediately, a dozen angry voices began to complain in harsh chorus about India’s apparently unconscionable “pandering” to Iran. After all, it’s Israel that sells our army all that nice tech the Americans can’t sell directly.
And I brought up the now-discredited term partly because, as you listen to people red-facedly demanding to know why Delhi isn’t lining up behind Washington and tightening the screws on Teheran, you’re forced to conclude that India has now been saddled with a large bunch of America-firsters.
Now, on the one hand, we need someone to balance our Blame America Firsters, currently muttering darkly that it was probably Mossad anyway, trying to push India’s slavish neoliberal elite further into line behind the lone superpower. The head of Mossad was here week before last, wasn’t he? That practically proves it.
But the America-firsters’ anger that India is openly conspiring to break the sanctions that the US-led West has so painstakingly imposed needs a bit more examination than does the random conspiracy-mongering of the other lot. For these gentlemen, the attack in Delhi was just another sign that the US, Israel and India are “on the same side”. And the reason India was not immediately offering to provide back-office support to bombing raids against Iran was our hopeless political pandering to Muslims, all of whom presumably vote in Uttar Pradesh as Ayatollah Khamenei tells them to.
Here are the reasons America-firsters are wrong, as well as shockingly hypocritical.
First, they continually underplay what India has to gain from ties to Iran in purely realist terms — economically and strategically. Economically, Iran is India’s second-biggest, and cheapest, source of crude oil. As the world cuts down on Iranian exports, we have the chance to get an even better deal from them. Not just cheaper fuel, but also a rupee-only trade, which means that our faltering export market gets a bit of a boost, too. Strategically, Iran is crucial as an alternative route to India’s allies in Afghanistan once the West callously abandons that country to the tender loving care of the Taliban and their controllers in Rawalpindi.
Second, the claim that foreign policy shouldn’t be “held hostage” to domestic considerations – specifically, the justifiable belief among some sections of our citizenry that we have civilisational links to Iran – is very odd. Of course, the two-facedness of this claim is astonishing: it insists that India must not attend to domestic preferences when shaping its foreign policy in America’s image — even though the US’ foreign policy is, in this respect, pretty transparently a product of its own domestic election-year politics.
But the claim also makes a grave theoretical error. What determines foreign policy in a democracy? The realist pursuit of interests, sure. But those interests are defined by the leanings, emotional and economic, of our citizens. Many of us love America, have lives there and connections there. Oddly, when those are taken into account, it isn’t pandering. But when those with similar ties of emotion to Iran are taken into account, everyone stands around, pointing in horror and bellowing “pandering” at the top of their voices. This magical transmutation of politics-as-usual into pandering happens whenever Indian Muslims are involved, and so it is presumably their fault somehow.
Meanwhile, someone should point out to the America-firsters that suggesting this minor attack means India should help isolate Iran ever so slightly contradicts their other strongly-held view, which corresponds neatly to Washington’s preferences, that India keeps on engaging and placating Pakistan’s security establishment. Wait, Rawalpindi has fewer proven ties to terrorists than Teheran?
Third, India doesn’t need to choose between Israel and Iran. India’s ties with Israel are strong and sustainable. India is now Israel’s second-largest export market, and, frankly, they’re not going to start grumbling at us. Israel’s government has as few allies in the General Assembly and regular trading partners as its people have congenial and safe destinations for tropical vacations.
The essence of realist foreign policy is recognising when someone needs you, and driving a hard bargain. Both Iran and Israel do, currently. Of course, Israel’s occupying this bit of land that isn’t theirs and Iran happens to be ruled by an obscurantist, homosexual-hanging, election-stealing bunch of millenialist theocrats, so we needn’t get misty-eyed about either regime. But India shouldn’t ever be expected to choose between them — especially not when pushed into it by America’s dysfunctional domestic politics.
Basically, the claim that India must choose as America does rests on the unstated belief that this is what our long-term, strategic partnership with America requires. I’m a fan of having a strategic partnership with the US. But someone should remind its backers here what the word “partner” actually means. Hint: it doesn’t mean “poodle”.