The October 7 attack by Hamas has spiraled into a serious existential fight between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. India’s spontaneous announcement of support for Israel, without simultaneously calling for a permanent solution to the Palestinian question, surprised many in India, other than BJP supporters. The Indian ministry of external affairs, a bit belatedly, reverted to India’s balanced stance, condemning Hamas’ use of terror and the need for a two-nation solution.
However matters got complicated for India when a Qatari court pronounced the death sentence on eight former Indian naval officers, for espionage. Although no judgment is publicly available, leaked reports indicate a charge of highly confidential information leaked to Israel, pertaining to Qatari purchase of midget submarines from an Italian company Fincantieri SpA. Its timing could not be worse as Arab public opinion is currently highly agitated over Israel’s ruthless bombing of areas in Gaza with heavy civilian concentration, as indeed the blockade which is exacerbating the shortages of food, water and medicines.
As it is, India has moved, since BJP assumed power in 2014, closer to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, their lingering differences with Qatar worsened in 2017, when the two, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, decided to break relations with Qatar and blockade it. India was thus left stranded, with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) badly split. Although India continued to import gas from Qatar and watched over its eight-lakh-strong diaspora there, in reality it shared the Emirati and Saudi dislike of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera broadcasts and Qatar’s support of Islamist factions and causes. Qatar protested when a BJP spokesperson publicly made Islamophobic remarks. Earlier in 2010 it was Qatar that granted citizenship to iconic Indian artist M F Hussain, self-exiled in Dubai, having escaped threats to his life from far-right groups in India.
The Indian dilemma now is how to rescue the Indian ex-officers, facing apparently exaggerated charges, from a nation that is closer to Hamas than Israel. When facing the blockade Qatar moved closer to Iran and Turkey. It shares its North gas field with Iran, in a ratio of 70:30, on which rests its prosperity and its global prominence as an LNG exporter. Qatar’s immediate neighbours lifted the blockade and restored diplomatic relations in 2021. But in reality suspicions persist due to perceived Qatari propensity to sponsor Islamist causes, advocate more political openness and the freedom it allows Al Jazeera to report on developments in the Arab world, boldly and even provocatively.
The US envisioned a new regional security architecture via the Abraham Accords, to get prominent Gulf nations like UAE and Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel. Even the Saudis were considering it when Hamas had at least temporarily stopped it by its attack. On the sidelines of the New Delhi G20 summit, on September 9-10 recently, one major achievement projected was the announcement of an India-Europe rail and cyber-optics link via UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. The Adani Group had already bought control of Haifa port in Israel, where it was to terminate on the Mediterranean. This writer then posited on television that when leaders of all participating nations were present, why was the Israeli prime minister not there? The absence indicated that the Saudi-Israeli detente was still not final. After Hamas’ attack and Israeli vow to eliminate it, however high the civilian casualties in Gaza, that deal is now in cold storage. This demonstrates how geopolitical calculus can be changed overnight, even by a non-state actor.
For India the challenge is now multifold. It must handle with despatch the Qatari death sentence, months before crucial state and then national elections. Failure to do so can tarnish BJP’s electoral marketing of hyper-nationalism, which definitely won it the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Next, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal investment in Israel and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu stands derailed. He was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. By all accounts, once the current military operation by Israel concludes, as it must in weeks and not months due to rising global outcry over civilian deaths, Netanyahu is unlikely to remain in power. The fact that he had to almost instantly apologise and retract his criticism of Israeli intelligence shows his political vulnerability.
Finally, BJP’s policy of picking as friends, amongst Islamic nations, those that ignored its majoritarian domestic politics and its special relations with Israel is also now under challenge. Saudis have pulled back from engaging Israel, and even Emiratis are embarrassed by their positioning as signatories of the Abraham Accords. None of those friends, including the US which needs Qatar due to its airbase there, would be able to help with the case of the Indian naval officers. The moral is that joining partisan games with a dominant global power can leave one stranded when geopolitical plates shift. India’s instinctive nonalignment since independence still has virtues, when modified marginally, not grossly, to suit contemporary context.
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs