Indian foreign policy today stands at a crossroads. In the years following independence, India, suspicious of the United States, maintained a stance that was ostensibly non-aligned, although in practice favorably inclined towards the Soviet Union. It also adopted a rhetorical stance supportive of the Palestinian cause and contrary to Israel. The reasons for this are complex and not yet fully explained. Perhaps most relevant is Jawaharlal Nehru’s leftist, intellectual, and patrician distaste for the Americans, and intuitive championing of the downtrodden, which was (and remains today, rightly or wrongly) the image of the Palestinians in much of the developing world. This continued, and to some extent strengthened, during the Indira Gandhi period. Mrs. Gandhi could certainly not be accused of a principled foreign policy. The explanation lies rather with domestic political and economic realities: the reliance of the Congress Party on the Muslim “vote bank” on the one hand, and India’s dependence on foreign exchange remittances from guest workers in the Gulf states on the other.
The collapse of the Soviet empire in the last decade of the last century, and the rise of American hegemony in what is now conventionally called a unipolar world, led to a major rethink of India’s stance vis-à-vis the United States, and, more recently, Israel. What enabled this was not only changed circumstances in the outside world, but political change at home. The current coalition government, the National Democratic Alliance, rests on an electoral base that is to a large extent urban and Hindu. It is thus free to pursue stronger ties with the United States and Israel, without needing to worry excessively about the adverse political reaction from Muslim voters.
The change in India’s thinking was reflected, to some extent, by a change in America’s, which, particularly in the second Clinton term, adopted a stance markedly tilting towards India and away from America’s traditional Cold War ally, Pakistan. This pro-India stance was inherited by the Bush administration, and all signs pointed towards a ramping up of the India-US relationship and the relegation of Pakistan, which had already been written off in most quarters as a failed state.
As we all know, September 11, 2001, changed everything. Pakistan once again became useful to the United States, if not as a long term strategic ally, then as a short term tactical one in the Afghan theatre. India was, quite rightly, angered by the fact that the United States asserted, and acted upon, its right to cross international borders to pursue its war against terrorism, but urged India not to do so against terrorists operating from within Pakistan, even after the most extreme provocation, the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. These factors contributed to a moderate dampening of the incipient and burgeoning Indo-American partnership.
In the aftermath of the American-led war against Iraq, the picture has once again changed. Indian leaders have remained, for the most part, pointedly neutral on the Iraq war, neither openly condemning the United States and its allies nor publicly supporting them. This mirrors India’s public stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: neither condemning Israeli incursions into the occupied territories nor protesting very strongly Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israel, but rather blandly repeating that what goes on within the borders of Israel and the occupied territories are matters of domestic concern. Anyone reading between the lines, of course, cannot fail to see the implicit support for Israel, and the obvious parallel with India’s own position on dealing with terrorism in Kashmir.
This studied public posture of neutrality is politically useful for India, which still has a large number of its migrants working in the Gulf states, and depends upon the Arab countries for a significant percentage of its oil needs. It disguises the fact that, little seen and even less commented upon in the media, there is a great deal of cooperation on matters of security and intelligence between India and Israel, and to a lesser extent, India and the United States. This cooperation takes the form, largely, of intelligence sharing amongst the three countries. But there is, of course, no overt American military presence in India, and Israeli security experts visiting the foreign and defense policy establishments in New Delhi maintain a studiously low profile. It as if India is a silent partner in the war on terrorism.
It is time for principle to trump expediency, and for India to come out of the closet, and declare itself publicly, and at the highest level, an ally of the United States and Israel, and fully join the ranks of the international coalition of the willing, fighting the good fight against global terrorism. India, Israel, and the United States are natural allies. All three are democratic and pluralistic societies, and all have suffered grievously from the scourge of Islamic terrorism. It is worth remarking that when the radical Islamic mullahs worldwide exhort their followers to action, in the first instance they call for the “liberation” of Palestinians from Israel, then of Kashmiris from India, and, finally, of course, for the destruction of the United States.
Likewise, it should not be forgotten that India and Israel are the only non-Islamic, pro-Western, democratic states in a huge swathe stretching from North Africa to the borders of China. As such, it is well recognized in Washington that its long term strategic allies in the region are Israel, India, and (possibly) Turkey. The alliance with Israel is a pillar of US foreign policy. The alliance with Turkey has been put under great strain as a result of the Iraq war, and the long run viability of Turkey as a secular nation-state is itself in serious doubt. No such doubt exists in the case of India. A strong bilateral US-India alliance could thus become a second pillar. A strengthened India-Israel bilateral relationship would be a third pillar. And the trilateral alliance of the United States, India, and Israel, would form the edifice of a new international security arrangement in the region, and become an integral part of the global security regime, complementing the role of NATO and of various ad hoc “coalitions of the willing”. (I do not include the United Nations, which, as evidenced by its failure to act against Iraq, has come a cropper in promoting international security.)
The first step must be taken by India, as I have suggested, publicly pronouncing itself in favor of the United States and Israel. The Americans and Israselis should quickly reciprocate. What should follow are high level talks to widen and deepen the security and intelligence cooperation that already exists, and to take steps to extend cooperation to new areas, for instance, selective joint military training exercises, and, most importantly, greatly increased US military assistance to India, to give it the tools necessary to ratchet up its fight against terrorism in Kashmir, ensure the security of its borders (never forgetting the Chinese threat, or the fact that China to this day occupies a piece of Indian territory), and, if necessary, follow the Americans’ own lead and take the fight to where the terrorists train and receive succour, neutralizing them at their source.
Apart from the strategic and security advantages to be gained through such an arrangement, there is a strong moral argument to be made for the natural alliance of democratic and peace-loving states, who wish to be assured of the security of their borders, which are threatened by rogue states, and that of their own citizens, who are threatened by international, mainly Islamic, terrorists. Such an alliance could rightly be dubbed an “axis of good,” a salutary and beneficial counterbalance to one or more axes of evil that today imperil global peace and prosperity.