Narendra Modi’s “landmark” visit to Ramallah, the first-ever by an Indian prime minister, is reflective of the muddle that is Indian foreign policy.
It is tempting to contextualise the visit as an attempt to “de-hyphenate” and “delink” India’s relationship with Israel and Palestine. It is tempting also to speculate that a pro-Arab outreach will help India in booking a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat. But that is little more than fanciful thinking. In reality, these symbolisms never work, and carry little meaning without an overarching foreign policy framework.
For reasons proximate and divorced, Modi’s Ramallah visit and laying of a wreath on Yasser Arafat’s grave are gestures pregnant with intended and unintended consequences. While Modi may feel that the outcomes could be controlled and harnessed for regional peace and stability and rise of India’s stature as a global power, such assumptions are misleading when it comes to a continuous, corrosive and complex dispute that has resisted all global attempts at reconciliation.
It is unclear whether this so-called de-hyphenation will deliver tangible benefits for India, or as some optimists have argued, “go a long way in establishing peace between Israel and Palestine.” What it will doubtlessly do, however, is send a series of confusing signals about the direction of our foreign policy which under Modi appears directionless: A set of disconnected virtue-signalling impulses.
The prime minister is hard at work to elevate India’s status as a regional heavyweight and an aspiring superpower with an increasing say in global comity of nations, but these objectives will never be met as long as our policy-making is based on ‘morality’ instead of realpolitik. The fulcrum of a successful foreign policy is self-interest, not grandstanding.
There was simply no need for Modi to include Ramallah as a stop in his West Asia trip. There is very little economic, geopolitical or strategic logic. This isn’t to argue against Modi’s larger West Asia outreach, however. Since assuming office in 2014, the prime minister has visited UAE, Saudi Arabia Qatar and Israel. Coinciding with Modi’s ongoing trip, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was in Saudia Arabia where India was the ‘guest of honour’ at the annual Janadriyah festival.