India's balancing act in West Asia

Pranay Kotasthane

Continuity, Change, and Compromise since 1922
Nicolas Blarel
Oxford University Press;
410 pages; Rs 995

Rarely did the left-wing Praja Socialist Party (PSP), the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and the liberal Swatantra Party ever find common ground throughout their existence. Fewer still were occasions when the survival of the Indian government in the Lok Sabha was contested due to conflicts taking place far way from India. And only once did India recognise a state and yet defer diplomatic ties for as long as 42 years. Such is the enigma of India's foreign policy towards Israel that it has been the cause of all these three rare occurrences.

The Evolution of India's Israel Policy is a scholarly work in which the author Nicolas Blarel, an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Netherlands, develops a framework to explain the change in India's relationship with Israel. What he provides here is a dispassionate and analytically rigorous account of India's policy in West Asia.

The objective of this work is to raise and answer some key empirical questions. Why did India not establish diplomatic relations with Israel for more than 40 years? What were the enabling conditions under which this policy was finally reversed in 1992?

The traditional answers have excessively weighed major international changes of 1990-92 such as the end of the Cold War, the domestic economic reforms in India and the Israeli-Palestinian talks following the Madrid Conference. Blarel disagrees with this deep-rooted approach in international relations theory which conceives that foreign policy changes are a binary phenomenon - they either take place with a quick, big bang or they don't. Instead, the author offers "a new conceptual framework which can better account for the formation of India's Israel policy as well as its evolution and transformation as it was confronted with changing circumstances, different leaders, and varying ideas."

The central argument is that any foreign policy change occurs due to a contestation of ideas between various actors in two distinct stages. In the first stage, there's a collapse of the existing dominant orthodoxy when the old guard's policy ideas lose legitimacy due to an external shock. At this point, the foreign policy position is fluid and open to debate. In the second stage, a contest between the new and old thinking takes place. Eventually, the direction and the magnitude of the foreign policy change is determined not only by the arguments of the two competitors but also their command over institutions, the resources they can command in pertinent debates, and external factors that affect the relative power of the two groups.

The author tests this framework by applying it to the important junctures in India's foreign policy towards Israel. The first juncture (1922-1947) details India's pre-independence position on the Jewish Homeland question. Starting with the Khilafat movement, Blarel notes that West Asian politics became a competitive arena between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress (INC) to gain support of Indian Muslims. This approach indirectly led the INC to oppose the Zionist project and resulted in the first Indian policy towards Israel, one that did not recognise its existence even after the USSR, US and the United Nations had done so in 1948.

This policy changed when the opportunity costs of India's refusal to accept a legitimate state started becoming unbearable. Concurrently, Indian policymakers knew that the Arab states enjoyed numerical assymetry at the UN General Assembly vis-à-vis Israel. This was important to India because Pakistan was actively courting the Arab states for their support on the Kashmir issue at UN. Consequently, a policy compromise was reached whereby India recognised Israel in 1950 without setting any timeline for establishing diplomatic contacts.

A window of opportunity to change this status came during 1969-1971, when there was a developing internal consensus among major opposition parties in India as the Arab states continued to oppose India at multilateral fora. Two censure motions challenging the survival of the government were initiated in the Lok Sabha criticising India's pro-Arab stance. But the new dependence on oil from West Asia meant that India settled for a new compromise-India recognised the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the spokesman of the Palestenian people. Simultaneously, back channel contacts with Israel were established through the Mossad which acted as an alternative diplomatic agency.

Finally, India decided to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, notably just five days after China had done so. Using the proposed framework, Blarel explains how the old thinking was completely replaced on this occasion. Amongst other factors, he discusses Israel's role as a supplier of arms to India at a time when Russia was on the decline, and its role as a conduit for economic and trade opportunities with the US.

This foreign policy change of 1992 has now survived for more than two decades. Throughout this period, India has voted for the Palestinean cause at the UN on one hand, and has managed to consolidate its relationship with Israel on the other. But the balancing act still survives. The book adequately explains how India's stance in West Asia has been guided by realism rather than moral considerations. As a consequence, India is uniquely placed - it has been able to maintain a non-adversarial relationship with every West Asian nation. India's economic growth and pragmatism in international policy will determine whether

India utilises this advantage.

The reviewer is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank and school of public policy

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First Published: May 20 2015 | 9:25 PM IST

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