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  Opinion   Columnists  24 Nov 2023  K.C. Singh | India in a bind at Brics & G-20 over Gaza waffling

K.C. Singh | India in a bind at Brics & G-20 over Gaza waffling

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : Nov 25, 2023, 12:02 am IST
Updated : Nov 25, 2023, 12:02 am IST

Surprisingly, no peaceful demonstration has taken place near the Israeli or US missions in India.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar speaks during a press briefing on the Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (PTI Photo)
 External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar speaks during a press briefing on the Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (PTI Photo)

The Government of India had planned diplomatic ascendancy in 2023 as its chairmanship of the G-20 began. The aim was to consolidate its rising international stature and employ it for domestic political marketing months before crucial state Assembly elections and then the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The cricket ODI World Cup was to be the icing on the cake, which melted in Ahmedabad.

But the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza that began on October 7 this year and the polarisation earlier between the US-led Nato and Russia, with mounting convergence with China over the Ukraine war since February 2022, created major distractions. In addition, China’s economic slowdown and domestic preoccupation also impinged on the functioning of the Brics and G-20.

Against this backdrop, the meetings of these two groups earlier this week hold important lessons. The South African presidency of Brics convened a virtual summit on November 21 on “the Middle East situation”. South Africa has been aggressively criticising the Israeli bombings in Gaza, which have caused a heavy civilian toll of over 11,000 and counting. South Africa withdrew its ambassador to Israel and its Parliament has passed an Opposition motion to shut down the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. Prime Minister Narendra Modi skipped the meeting, pleading preoccupation with electioneering. The Presidents of the other three original members -- Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Brazil’s Luiz Lula da Silva attended. Also invited were the leaders of Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Ethiopia, like India, was represented at a level lower than the head of government. No joint statement could be issued due to the differing perceptions but the Chair’s summary and the statements of Brazil, China and Russia conveyed the drift. Brazilian President Lula balanced the condemnation of Hamas’ attack on Israel by seeking the release of hostages and an end to the “human catastrophe”. China’s Xi argued that the root cause had been ignored, which was the “the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, their right to existence, and their right to return”. Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought de-escalation, ceasefire and a political solution. He felt Brics could play a key role in resolving the conflict.

The Chair’s summary propounded that forced displacement of people whether within Gaza or to neighbouring states “constituted grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and war crimes and violations under international humanitarian law”.

South Africa has gone a step further and alongside Bangladesh, Bolivia and Comoros has approached the International Criminal Court at The Hague to take action against Israel. It has even sought international warrants against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. South Africa’s evangelism against the purported Israeli war crimes can only be explained as their angst against Israel for its extreme closeness to past apartheid governments.

India has been caught in a bind. The minute it allowed Brics to be expanded to admit the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, it opened the door to the agenda getting hijacked by countries holding extreme positions in an increasingly polarized world. Next Pakistan is apparently applying to join Brics. Its entry will further vitiate the economic agenda of the organisation.

Clearly, the expanded Brics-Plus is now in danger of being nudged, if not guided, by the China-Russia partnership. It is hardly a coincidence that China’s tilt towards the Palestinian and Arab narrative is a deliberate move to choose the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the 22-member Arab League over Israel. As it is, China’s ties with the US were already on a competitive if not an outright confrontational path.

India is stuck in the middle of these two camps. The BJP’s traditionally Islamophobic orientation and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s making relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intensely personal caused instinctive voicing of solidarity with Israel after the October 7 attack. The ministry of external affairs was blindsided and it took some days to guide India back into a more balanced position. But the flip-flops during UN votes, the reiteration of traditional Indian support to a two-state solution were aimed to project India as neutral. But good care was taken to not condemn Israeli ignoring of civilian safety and even hospital infrastructure while going after Hamas. The new coinage, that external affairs minister S. Jaishankar espouses, is the  “need for restraint and immediate humanitarian support”. He also advocates “peaceful resolution through dialogue and diplomacy”.

But the irony is that India, which has sought to be the voice of the Global South, does not figure in the “diplomacy” being undertaken. Qatar is at the heart of the humanitarian pause and hostage release. China hosted earlier in the week a delegation of Muslim nations, officials and organisations seeking a “ceasefire”.

That word has been avoided by India in public statements, exactly like the United States. Implicit in that omission is the message that Israel has the freedom to uproot Hamas, whatever the material damage or loss of innocent lives. Even in the US, public opinion amongst younger voters has turned against President Joe Biden over what is seen as his blind support to Israel.

Surprisingly, no peaceful demonstration has taken place near the Israeli or US missions in India. This has not happened even in the Opposition-ruled states. One reason could be sympathy with Israel due to India itself having been a victim of terrorism sponsored by a neighbouring state. Another could be the management by the Union government of social media posts of horrible carnage caused by Israeli bombing, including the death of over 4,000 innocent children. It could also be a reflection of a BJP-envisioned Bharat that does not empathise much with sufferings in a distant Muslim society.

Whatever the reason, this will diminish Indian standing globally as a rising power that has an independent voice based on morality and humanitarianism.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the final event of India’s G-20 presidency, a virtual summit, was left colourless with the Presidents of the US and China skipping it. India’s desire to be seen as the cheerleader of the Global South also stands compromised in a world that looks different at the end of 2023 than at its beginning. China has by its strong anti-Israel positioning stolen the thunder, while gathering support for its acceptance as the second pole in a bipolar world. The lesson for India is that running sometimes with the hare and at others hunting with the hound leaves you diplomatically dangling between two stools.

Tags: g20 summit talks, israel palestine conflict, gaza airstrikes