Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  31 October, 2023

India's Balancing Act: 'Limited Liability Partnership'

Image: Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Israel, Lt. Gen (Res) Benjamin Gantz wth PM Narendra Modi, New Delhi, June 2 2022 - YashSD/

The Indian government has, in contrast to many governments of the Global South, assured Israel of its full solidarity following the Hamas terrorist attack. The reaction after the start of Russia's war against Ukraine was quite different. The history of India-Russia and India-Israel relations illustrates why.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's statement in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack was clear: We are “deeply shocked by the news of the terrorist attack in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour." The daily paper Indian Express concluded on October 8 that the tone in Modi’s statement "marks an unmistakable shift away from the carefully choreographed balancing act that has marked New Delhi's reaction to earlier stand-offs between Israel and Palestinian militants."

Why the cautious reaction after the start of Russia's war in February 2022 and now the clear message pro-Israel? India has always seen itself as a non-aligned country. The Indian government enters into what it calls "multiple alliances" and seeks partnerships that correspond to its own interests. Samir Saran, president of the major Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation, which also advises the government, argues that today's geopolitics is characterized by the perception of self-interest. He speaks of "limited liability partnerships among nations". India's differing behaviour towards Ukraine and Israel, both of which have been attacked in violation of international law, can be explained by this balancing politics.

India has long maintained a friendly relationship with Russia, which was firmly established in a friendship treaty between India and the Soviet Union in 1971. The Soviet Union, and later Russia, became India's main supplier of armaments. To this day, the Indian armed forces are dependent on Russia's cooperation in their arsenal of weapons. In addition, India imports energy from Russia on favorable terms, although India has successfully tried to diversify its imports.

India abstained from the decisive vote in the UN General Assembly, which overwhelmingly condemned Russia's war of aggression. India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar made it clear that India's economic interests are more important to India than isolating Russia. It’s foreign and security policy makes sure that the country is not aligned with one of the competing geopolitical camps. This is one reason why the Indian government rejected the West's calls to participate in the sanctions against Russia.

Today, in contrast to Ukraine, India maintains very close political and economic relations with Israel. But they weren't always so friendly. When India won its independence from British colonial power in 1947, it was enthusiastically welcomed by the Israelis. But Mahatma Gandhi had been extremely critical of Israel's founding in 1948: "Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France belongs to the French. It is wrong and inhumane to impose the Jews on the Arabs."

This distanced attitude towards Israel did not change for a long time. Until 2015 India agreed to all UN resolutions condemning Israel's policy towards Palestine. India was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. It was only in 2015 that India for the first time abstained from voting on a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for an investigation by the International Criminal Court for war crimes by Israel.

However, there were certainly points of contact between Israel and India. Zionism was not only popular with India's Hindu nationalists, but India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was also attracted by the Zionist concept of state-building. Nehru, however, refused to accept Israel's diplomatic recognition because he feared for the credibility of India‘s non-alignment policy among Arab governments.

For more than four decades, India rejected Israel's advances. Israel and India have maintained diplomatic relations only since 1992. The long hesitation of the Indian government was also due to the fact that India was dependent on oil supplies from the Middle East. In the meantime, the two countries maintain close relations in trade, with high annual growth rates, in agriculture and culture.

Israel has become an important, at times the second most important, supplier of arms to India. Around 40 percent of Israel's arms exports go to India. Israeli companies modernized the outdated Soviet MiG-21s and other fighter jets of the Indian Armed Forces. For years, Israel has been supplying electronics and missiles for the modernization of almost all categories of weapons. An agreement provides for the joint production of anti-aircraft missiles. According to estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the volume of Israeli arms exports to India over the past five years has amounted to $1.8 billion. In order to arm itself against China's aggressive policy, India ordered additional weapons from Israel. During a visit to India in June 2022, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Israeli counterpart Benny Gantz agreed to strengthen bilateral relations and discussed further engagement of Israeli companies in the Indian defense industry.

The post-9/11 "war on terror" led to an intensification of Indo-Israeli relations. Both countries had bitter experiences with terrorist attacks: Israel because of the unresolved question of Palestine and India earlier by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, internally by the Naxalites and to this day as a result of the disputed Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Terrorist attacks regularly emanate from there. In 2008, India experienced its own "9/11" in Mumbai in a terrorist attack by the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to official figures, 166 people were killed. The target of the attack was tourist and Jewish institutions in Mumbai. Among the victims were several Israelis, including Rabbi Gavriel Holzberg and his wife, of the Jewish Chabad House in Mumbai.

The Israeli concept of homeland defense then found great popularity in India. Armed forces and police should benefit from the "Israeli experience." As a result of public pressure, the Indian government has since adopted a tougher crackdown on terrorism suspects. An Indian delegation visited Israel and, as a result, an Israeli-trained commando unit was set up in Mumbai. With Israeli technical assistance, India created a central electronic monitoring system capable of comprehensively monitoring private communications. Allegedly, the notorious Israeli spyware Pegasus was also used.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist policies have traits comparable to Prime Minister Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the ultra-right in his government. Both maintain an ethno-national anti-Muslim policy. In 2019, for example, the Modi government revoked Kashmir's special constitutional status, that had originally been inserted as a temporary measure, but allowed to continue for several decades. The majority Muslim population in Kashmir has been fighting for independence for decades. The government imposed a curfew on the Indian part of Kashmir, deployed thousands of soldiers, cut off telephone connections, blocked the internet and imprisoned numerous journalists and civil society activists. India's best-known writer, Arundhati Roy, called this policy a digital siege and military occupation. Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, wrote at the time of the governments imposition of power over Kashmir: “The changes give effect to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision of India as one nation and one people under one constitution.”

The Israeli-Indian relationship has evolved through the respective counterterrorism efforts and has remained untroubled since Modi's visit to Israel in 2017 and Netanyahu's return visit in 2018. Both the 25th and 30th anniversaries of diplomatic recognition were the occasion for the further expansion of relations. It is to be expected that India will continue to pursue this policy for as long as it suits its interests.


Related articles:

Scaling the wall of grief in Israel and Palestine (3-minute read)

Director's statement: The Hamas-Israel conflict (3-minute read)


Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Council of SIPRI.