On Gaza, India has chosen to be on the wrong side of history

Israeli Likud Party election banners hanging from a building in Tel Aviv showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a caption above reading in Hebrew “Netanyahu, in another league.” JACK GUEZ / AFP / Getty Images
14 November, 2023

It has been over two decades since the US President George W Bush announced the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration had assembled a “coalition of the willing” at the time and many expected that a right-wing National Democratic Alliance government, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, would put Indian boots on the ground. These were the early but heady years of India-United States cooperation, but New Delhi stuck to the argument that any military action in Iraq needed a United Nations mandate.

Over a month after the announcement, Bush officially claimed “mission accomplished” in Iraq for the US and its allies. However, the military occupation of Iraq persisted, prompting American diplomats in Delhi to intensify lobbying efforts for an Indian military presence in that country. The consensus among several influential commentators and mainstream publications such as India Today and The Indian Express, by now, was strongly in favour of sending Indian soldiers for the American mission. Meanwhile, former prime ministers IK Gujral and VP Singh issued public statements against deployment. The government, later revelations showed, was divided on the subject. The Cabinet Committee on Security met twice but could not take a decision. In a discussion in the full cabinet, the majority was against sending Indian soldiers.

In June 2003, when deputy prime minister LK Advani went to Washington, during his meeting with national security advisor Condoleezza Rice at the White House, Bush made an appearance. Advani apparently conveyed an openness to the idea of Indian military deployment in another meeting. “He had mentioned it to Dick Cheney who was the vice president,” then foreign minister Yashwant Sinha told The Wire in 2016. India was expected to send a full army division of around seventeen thousand soldiers to serve in the Kurdish region around Mosul. The Pentagon even dispatched a team to New Delhi to help plan the Indian deployment. An opinion poll in the Outlook magazine showed that 69 percent of respondents were opposed to sending Indian forces to Iraq. The National Security Advisory Board was tasked to prepare a report but eventually, a political call was taken, in line with Vajpayee’s own view, to not send Indian soldiers to Iraq.

Two decades later, it is crystal clear that India took the right decision. Those who argued that a closer relationship with the only global superpower would strengthen India’s international position—particularly with respect to its adversaries—bring Indian companies lucrative post-war reconstruction contracts in Iraq and secure India’s energy requirements for the future, were proven wrong. Remembering this now is important because shades of the choices made in 2003 are reflected in the Indian position on the recent crisis in Gaza. Within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, the Indian position was immediately made clear by a tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing solidarity with Israel. Unlike in 2003, public discourse was somewhat muted.