At 4,500 square kilometres, Nagorno-Karabakh is only a shade smaller than Palestine. It remains a bone of contention between the predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan and the mainly Christian Armenia in the southern Caucasus mountains. Since 1994, when the Nagorno-Karabakh war ended, India either voted for a resolution or amendment/s to a resolution favouring Azerbaijan. This happened on at least four occasions: In 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999. Changing tack, India abstained on four occasions between 2000 and 2005. However, 2008 would prove to be different; it was the year when the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government quietly laid to rest India’s extant policy of voting for, or abstaining from, a United Nations resolution on the situation in Nagorno- Karabakh. On 14 March 2008, India joined Angola, Armenia, France, Russia, the United States and Vanuatu in voting against the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 62/243 which called for an immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. In an interview to this writer, the then Azeri ambassador had described India’s vote as “unexpected” and “regrettable”.
The overturning of India’s long-held policy vis-a-vis Azerbaijan at the United Nations came almost three years after, again, the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government, in a similarly surprising fashion, voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. A former US government official confirmed widely-held suspicions that India’s vote had been “coerced”. Hamid Ansari, now the Vice President of India, had described it as an “avoidable blunder”. Like the Azeri envoy mentioned above, this writer remembers an Iranian diplomat expressing his “surprise” at India’s, well, “unexpected” decision.
Unlike the Iranian and the Azeri diplomats before him, Israel’s Ambassador to India Daniel Carmon was in for a surprise of a pleasant kind when India, for the first time, abstained from voting on a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution condemning Israel for “possible war crimes” during the 2014 Gaza war. What probably clinched it for Israel was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s telephone call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him “to abstain”, as reported by the Haaretz newspaper of Israel. For Netanyahu, it helped that Modi has committed himself to becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, probably after the Republic Day in January 2016. “The fact that India abstained reflects a significant policy change by Delhi,” the Haaretz report read. “Traditionally, India voted in favour of all (emphasis added) anti- Israel resolutions in UN institutions.” An Israeli diplomat thanked India for leading a “high quality” of countries who did not support the resolution; only that the countries in question were Ethiopia, Kenya, Macedonia and Paraguay. So much for the company India keeps!
If India’s record of first voting for, then abstaining and eventually voting against Azerbaijan on Nagorno- Karabakh, or its pattern of abstaining or voting against Iran are anything to go by, then the question one should be asking is: Is India’s abstention on the resolution condemning Israel the beginning of the end of India’s extant policy of supporting the Palestinian cause? Unfortunately for New Delhi, its repeated assertions that “there is no change” in India’s position and that the UNHRC resolution contained a “reference to the International Criminal Court” which India is not a signatory to, and therefore the abstention, do not inspire confidence. The writing is on the wall and it might begin to become evident when Modi visits the Western Wall, also known as Wailing Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter but skips Ramallah, the seat of power of the Palestinian Authority. (There is a view though that Bethlehem with its Church of Nativity may be thrown in as a compromise.) After Manmohan Singh set back bilateral ties with Iran by a decade, India is now seeking to make up for lost time by accelerating the strategic Chabahar port project. That should be lesson enough for the government of the day. You don’t choose between friends.