Narendra Modi has shifted India from the Palestinians to Israel

The pivot reflects Indian domestic politics and new interests in the Middle East


FOREIGN NEWS usually gets short shrift in India. Yet for the past month the country’s television channels have been dominated by wall-to-wall coverage of events in Israel and Gaza, mostly from Israel’s perspective. News anchors in bulletproof vests stand in the desert delivering breathless reports on the aftermath of Hamas’s atrocities in Israel on October 7th. Talk-show hosts restage the Palestinian terrorist group’s attack from Gaza with toy soldiers and miniature bulldozers. Weeks into the war, coverage remains intense.

The media’s fascination with Israel’s plight and retribution coincides with a marked shift in the Indian government’s stance on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It has moved from backing the Palestinians to more or less unqualified support for Israel. The pivot is based on a realist reappraisal of Indian interests in the Middle East. It has also met with strong public backing from Narendra Modi’s domestic supporters, which is gratifying for Mr Modi’s government ahead of state elections this month and a general election next year.

In the past, like many countries in the global south, India tempered any expression of support for Israel with expressions of concern for the Palestinians’ plight. No more. Mr Modi took to X (formerly Twitter) within hours of Hamas’s assault to express his horror at the “terrorist attacks” and declare that “we stand in solidarity with Israel”. It took five days for India’s Ministry of External Affairs to reiterate, in response to questions from reporters, that India continued to support a two-state solution to the conflict. On October 27th, in a departure from its usual voting record, India abstained as the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza; it objected that the text did not condemn Hamas’s assault.

The shift reflects India’s growing defence and commercial ties to Israel. Co-operation between the two countries has been deepening ever since Israel provided India with military help during the Kargil war against Pakistan in 1999. That was long before America took a serious interest in military co-operation with India. Over the past decade India has bought missiles, drones and border-security equipment (and probably surveillance software, though it has not admitted this) from Israel, making it the Israeli defence industry’s biggest foreign customer.

A bromance between Mr Modi and Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has deepened the relationship. So has the two countries’ shared preoccupation with fighting terrorism, especially the Islamist variant. Explaining the abstention in the UN vote, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, said in a speech on October 29th that India took a strong position on terrorism “because we are big victims of terrorism”.

India has also been increasing its ties with Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And it can ill afford to alienate them; it depends on them for much of its oil and goodwill towards an estimated 9m expatriate Indian workers. Yet the fact that both countries have recently moved closer to Israel has allowed Mr Modi to effect his shift with alacrity. Even in the current crisis, the Saudis and Emiratis appear reluctant to allow the events in Gaza to cause a rupture in their long-term rapprochement with Israel.

Domestically, the Modi government’s pivot is essentially all upside. The Congress-led opposition has condemned it; leaders of India’s 200m Muslims have heavily criticised Israel’s military response. Yet the Indian middle-class that mostly backs Mr Modi is especially concerned about Islamist terrorism. Its members look on Hamas’s attack and recall the tragedy Mumbai suffered in 2008, when Pakistani Islamists killed 175 people and wounded more than 300 during a four-day rampage. It included an attack on a Jewish community centre in the city, where the terrorists murdered the rabbi and his pregnant wife.

There is a small risk the government will overplay its hand. As the civilian death toll in Gaza rises, India’s Arab partners might turn against the Israelis and their backers more aggressively. Mr Modi has latterly hedged against that possibility. He has reached out to Palestinian leaders, offering Indian condolences and humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, his Hindu-nationalist henchmen are unrestrained in using the conflict to stoke the Islamophobia that has propelled their party’s rise. Even if Mr Modi’s pivot becomes difficult abroad, it will probably help him win elections.?

November 3, 2023 | 7 Comments »

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7 Comments / 7 Comments

  1. KEELIE-

    It matters not that it is omitted from the history books as you say. I don’t believe it is.
    In our own lifetimes great slaughters occurred when the British Empire broke up, and created the separate states of India and Pakistan. They been basically at war ever since, principally over Kashmir, which is the Homeland of the Sikhs.

    Then the Civil War between West Pakistan and East Pakistan resulting in East Pakistan becoming the a new nation of Bangladesh.

    My memory may be a little “off” as it was a long time ago. I was a kid but very into military events.

  2. “In a period of 200 years, 300,000 people have been killed by tigers in India. One tiger went to a boat, killed a man, and dragged him to shore. Then went back to the boat and killed the other 2. But India should definitely call for a ceasefire. Because not all the tigers are doing this. Not all the tigers are bad.”

  3. Yes, the Muslim view of Hinduism is quite similar to their view of Christians and Jews; they hate them all. But for Hindus to support Islamic terrorists is beyond me considering the massive bloodletting they did in India over the centuries as John Galt says.
    Perhaps this is omitted from the history books of India… Sounds a bit like the type of censorship we get on this side of the world.

  4. Not so well known now is that Jinnah insisted on a separate Moslem state to succeed the Raj because in 1946 – 47 when the succession was negotiated the Holocaust was fresh off the news reels and undisputed. Jinnah was afraid that in a single unitary succession to the Raj the Hindu majority would eventually do for the Moslems what the Germans and others had just done for the European Jews.

    The evidence is in BBC documentaries that celebrate Indian and Pakistani independence on the 15 August when old newsreels and interviews with the participants are wheeled out commemoratively. In Aug ’22 (75th anniversary) or another recent year one of these interviews with a son of a senior Indian official in the highest level talks let this information out as something mentioned in a father-son conversation well after it was all over.

  5. All of the videos that I have watched and newspaper articles that I have read (from the Hindustan times) are very much from the Hamas-PLO point of view. However, I haven’t checked the Indian press for a while, and may have missed a shift in coverage.

  6. News anchors in bulletproof vests stand in the desert delivering breathless reports on the aftermath of Hamas’s atrocities in Israel on October 7th.

    Does India have a fascist State-media connection like we have in the West? Maybe it does, in which case I am glad for the direction Modi is moving things; but even if he didn’t control the press, I don’t think it would take much for the vast majority of Indians to abhor Muslim terrorists. They do nasty things in India too, like burning people alive in railway cars.