India Abstains: Folly or Strategy?

India abstains from voting on Israel and Gaza, showcasing a change in strategy. Zahaan Khan elaborates on why this is happening.

Modi and Netanyahu. Is there a change in strategy? Source:


India’s foreign policy and developments in the nation’s international relations have been in the limelight quite prominently since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power in May 2014. This was due the personal involvement of the the Prime Minister (PM) , often seen asserting India’s stance on various fronts and improving the country’s bilateral relations with other nations. Often the talking point in the country, PM Modi’s numerous international visits have contributed to the flurry of activity in this domain.

Recently, India’s foreign policy was at the center of attention once again, albeit this time, for a contentious reason –India abstaining from voting on the Israel-Palestine issue in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

This move is a considerable shift from India’s previous stance of voting in favour of Palestine at the United Nations, the latest being last year, when India voted in favour of a UNHRC resolution that called for an enquiry in the Gaza violence that left more than 2000 people dead. The resolution that India abstained from voting on this year criticised Israel for its “alleged war crimes” in Gaza, during last year’s air-strikes.

Given how India voted differently on two resolutions that dealt with the same issue (Israel’s offensive on Gaza last year), in a span of about one year, the shift in policy is evident. This shift comes in the wake of increasing cordiality and a warming up of ties between India and Israel since the NDA government came to power at the center. This warming in ties includes PM Modi meeting his Israeli counterpart Netanyahu at the sidelines of the 2014 United Nations General Assembly session in September and India Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting Israel in November 2014. PM Modi will himself visit Israel soon, becoming the first Indian Prime minister to visit the country since diplomatic ties with Israel resumed in 1992. With bilateral trade between the two nations booming, India’s relations with Israel seem to be progressing on all fronts.

The two head of states in discussion. Source: World Tribune

When I had written on India-Israel relations along with India-Iran relations for Hindustan Times earlier this year, there were reports that speculated a shift in India’s stance on Israel and experts were talking about how India-Israel relations may finally be coming out of the closet . The speculation was not unfounded after all, given India’s abstention at the UNHRC. However, the Ministry of External Affairs denied a shift in India’s policy towards Palestine stating that a reference to the International Criminal Court (ICC) was the reason for the abstention as India is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the ICC.

But, as Siddharth Varadarajan argues in his article for The Wire, India has voted on a resolution on Libya at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the past, where the ICC was referred to and in the UNHRC itself, on two resolutions pertaining to Syria. Varadarajan argues saying that votes in the UNSC are comparatively more crucial as the UNSC can refer countries to the ICC even if said countries have not accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction.

Having examined different opinions on why this decision to abstain was taken, we can now shift focus on what this means. India is looking to boost ties with Israel on various fronts including trade and cooperation in security. I had argued in my previous article for Hindustan Times that even if India were to change its stance on Palestine at the United Nations, it would largely be a symbolic move. Given how only five countries abstained in the recent vote (the other four being Ethiopia, Kenya, Macedonia, and Paraguay) and an overwhelming majority of the council voted in favour of the resolution, the abstentions were indeed more symbolic than tangible. Although let’s not forget that UNHRC resolutions in general are rarely tangible. The UNSC, on the other hand, can take binding decisions, but India is not a permanent member of the body.

Given the above facets, the decision by India to abstain seems a calculated move to bolster ties with Israel. But the major point here lies in the fact that India is making these moves without seeming to antagonise other regional players in the Middle East, such as Iran (a nation not known for being friendly with Israel), which has expressed a keen desire to boost trade with India following the historic nuclear accord it reached with the West.

In my opinion, the hue and cry over India abstaining over the vote at the UNHRC seems a little exaggerated as this hasn’t affected India’s other diplomatic ties, yet. Also, given how we continue to do cordial business with other nations, it doesn’t look like there will be a major impact of this supposed shift in our bilateral ties. Bilateral relations between nations can remain mutually exclusive and example of the same is India doing brisk business with both Iran and Israel, simultaneously.

Bolstering trade and economic ties with the world seems to be the Modi-led government’s priority and given how India has traditionally been a Non-Aligned country, a completely neutral approach (like this abstention) need not necessarily be detrimental to India’s foreign policy.

Zahaan Khan

Zahaan Khan

Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan (Zahaan) is a senior journalist with a leading Indian national daily. His areas of interest are India's foreign policy and Asian geopolitical relations. He tweets at @ZahaanAliKhan
Zahaan Khan

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