By Varghese K. George
December 26, 2017
When India voted on a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution last week on the status of Jerusalem, going against the wishes of the U.S. and Israel, many observers of its foreign policy were surprised. The resolution did not make a direct reference to the recent U.S. decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and shift its embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv. Through the resolution adopted with 128 in favour to nine against, with 35 abstentions, the 193-member UNGA expressed “deep regret” over “recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem” and stressed that Jerusalem “is a final status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant U.N. resolutions,” between Israel and Palestine.
The surprise over the Indian vote was not because it fell out of line with the country’s foreign policy as we have known it, but because of an apparent deviation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new strategic thinking. Much has been written on the ‘Modi strategic doctrine’ but the concept has been pithily summarised by Mr. Modi himself and explained by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar on earlier occasions — the goal is to transform India from being a ‘balancing power’ to a ‘leading power’ on the international stage. U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy released recently offers support for this aspiration of India to emerge as a ‘leading power.’
India’s Jerusalem vote can be interpreted as a continuing adherence to its traditional policy of nonalignment. But a more appropriate interpretation of the vote is possible within the framework of India’s leading power ambitions. To do that, we need to also see the vote in conjunction with two other votes in the recent past at the UN. The first was in June, when India supported a move by Mauritius to take its sovereignty claims over the British-controlled Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), against the wishes of the U.S.; the second was in November when India won a seat on the ICJ, in spite of active opposition from the U.S.
On the Jerusalem vote in the UNGA, which is not binding, if India had voted against the resolution, it would have ended up in the company of seven countries that joined the U.S. and Israel. These are Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo, the combined population of which roughly equals the population of Delhi. In the 2012 Gujarat Assembly election, Mr. Modi won more votes in the Maninagar constituency than the population of four of these countries. Not exactly the group that India might want to lead, as second deputy after America and Israel.
The second option was abstaining, along with Antigua-Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Benin, Canada, Cameroon, Croatia, Haiti, etc.
Of these, Canada, which used to vote with the U.S. on Israel resolutions, moved away from the U.S. position this time. Canada and Mexico also face the threat of the dismantling of the North American Free Trade Agreement by the Trump administration. As for Australia, its interests in West Asia are hardly comparable to India’s. In any case, not taking a position on an issue is hardly worthy of an aspiring leader.
Supporters of the ‘leading power’ doctrine often argue, rightly, that India must be more forthright and articulate in expressing its position on issues confronting the world. As it did, for instance, by speaking up on the Belt and Road Initiative. So, abstaining was not an attractive option for an aspiring leading power.
Suboptimal as it might be as a choice, voting for the resolution put India in the company of the overwhelming majority of the world. It kept India in the company of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), groupings that India continues to value under the Modi government. While BRICS and the SCO stayed together, the American-led NATO split on the issue, and even the Five Eyes countries of the English-speaking West — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. — did not stay together on this vote. And India has far more significant interests in West Asian peace and stability than many of these countries.
South Korea and Japan, treaty allies of the U.S. in the midst of a nuclear threat from North Korea, also voted for the resolution. Yes, India voted alongside Pakistan, but that happens quite often. Some critics of the Indian vote have said Islamic countries do not support India on Kashmir. In 2016, Pakistan raised Kashmir nine times at the U.N.; in 2017, seven times, a total of 16 times. There are 57 countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and statistically, there were 912 chances for a statement against India on Kashmir over the last two years by an Islamic country. But it has not happened even once.
While India under Mr. Modi’s brand of Hindutva nationalism is seeking leadership status on the global stage, the U.S. under Mr. Trump is undergoing a transition from being a hegemon to being a bully in its leadership role. The Jerusalem decision itself and the rhetoric that preceded the UNGA vote is a stark demonstration of this new U.S. posture. The disruptive streak in Mr. Trump opens new possibilities for India’s leading power ambitions, but that cannot be achieved by blindly following American diktats. The Chagos Archipelago vote in June and India’s ICJ contest in November bear out that fact.
Mauritius wanted the UNGA to request the ICJ to issue an advisory opinion on its sovereignty claim over archipelago as it considers it as an unfinished agenda of decolonisation. The U.S. recognises U.K. sovereignty over the territory and they jointly operate the Diego Garcia military base there. India voted in support of the resolution, overcoming the fear of a bilateral dispute being taken to ICJ. “The process of decolonisation that started with our own independence, still remains unfinished seven decades later,” India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, said in a statement on India’s vote. The resolution was passed with 94 countries voting in favour, 15 against and 65 abstaining.
In November, the U.S. supported the U.K. in its contest against India for an ICJ seat, as did all other permanent members of the Security Council. India stood its ground and won the day as the UNGA overwhelmingly supported it, forcing other permanent members to limit their support to the U.K., which finally withdrew its candidate. It is not difficult to draw a link between the two votes.
Leading power ambitions are not realised by declaring unquestioning allegiance to anyone. If you see Nehruvian thinking in this script, it must be read with the caveat that any resemblance is purely coincidental and not intended. If you are worried that this might make the U.S. unhappy towards India, be assured, not any more unhappy than it can be towards the U.K. that voted against it — after all, the U.S. had voted for it in the ICJ election against India. And the vote is only as much an appeasement of the increasingly marginalised Muslims of India, as Japan’s vote for the resolution can be an appeasement of its 100,000-strong Muslims. Three UNGA votes over six months are more about multilateral diplomacy coming of age. India can be great friends with the U.S. and Israel and still disagree with them on some issues.