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Explaining India’s Abstention From The UNGA Vote On Gaza
Although some have suggested that the reason for its abstention might have just been that the Canadian-initiated and Western-backed amendment to explicitly condemn Hamas didn’t pass after India also voted in support of it, there’s arguably more to it than just that.
India’s decision to abstain from the UNGA vote on Gaza last week prompted criticism from some who claimed that this stance clashes with its envisaged leadership of the Global South after most such states voted in support of that resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce”. As others already noted, India’s official explanation didn’t actually address why it abstained, but simply reaffirmed its policy of condemning terrorism and calling for the implementation of a two-state solution.
It's therefore left to experts to account for India’s abstention. The case can be made that this was the most pragmatic stance possible given the difficult diplomatic conditions within which India found itself upon the outbreak of the latest Israeli-Hamas war. Delhi had to delicately balance between its condemnation of terrorism, its principled support of all states’ right to self-defense, international humanitarian law, preexisting UNSC resolutions, and its historical experience with all these issues.
Although some have suggested that the reason for its abstention might have just been that the Canadian-initiated and Western-backed amendment to explicitly condemn Hamas didn’t pass after India also voted in support of it, there’s arguably more to it than just that. To begin with, observers should recognize that while the UN was created for the noble purpose of promoting cooperation and preserving peace, most of its work nowadays is performative and will likely remain so due to its political dynamics.
The creation of large voting blocs and their respective publics’ alignment on certain emotive issues sometimes tempts countries to push through resolutions for appearance’s sake even though they have no hope of being enshrined into international law. About that, the UNGA’s resolutions are politically binding, while the UNSC’s are legally binding. The challenge is that it’s extremely rare for all five permanent members to agree on anything since a veto from one is all that it takes to ruin a resolution.
These dynamics were at play during the latest UNGA vote on Gaza, which only stood the chance of being politically binding since Russia and Brazil’s earlier UNSC draft resolutions calling for an end to the violence were vetoed by the US out of solidarity with Israel. India never had any interest in voting against the resolution, but it also wasn’t going to vote for it either so long as it didn’t explicitly condemn Hamas. Accordingly, India sought to strike a balance by abstaining, which was sensible considering the context.
The example that it set by doing so actually corresponds to the Global South’s broader interests even though the optics make it seem to some that this position contradicts them. Multipolar supporters believe that every country has the sovereign right to promulgate policy in advance of their interests. Whenever they diverge on issues that aren’t of direct national security significance, the imperative is to respectfully defend them, not obnoxiously impede the advancement of others’ such interests.
From India’s perspective, it was better to abstain from a resolution that doesn’t include the requested condemnation of Hamas than to vote against it and risk the Global South’s ire by appearing to have sided with the US at the expense of the Palestinians considering the humanitarian truce contained therein. In either case, the resolution had no chance of becoming legally binding since it wasn’t tabled at the UNSC, where the US earlier reaffirmed its policy of vetoing anything that goes against Israeli interests.
Returning to the observation about how most of the UN’s work is performative and acknowledging that the UNGA vote on Gaza would only be politically binding in the best-case scenario, the entire event was just an exercise in perception management. What’s meant by this is that Palestine’s most passionate supporters in the Global South wanted to shame Isarel’s Western patrons by forcing them to vote against a humanitarian truce by not explicitly condemning Hamas within it like they wanted.
India practices a policy of principled neutrality towards this conflict just like Russia does, which was explained here, but they have slightly different interests in this case despite both having been victimized by terrorism in the past. Russia envisages leveraging its role in the Mideast Quartet to mediate a ceasefire that could eventually revive the stalled peace talks if the US’ monopoly over them is broken, both goals of which would be impossible if it explicitly condemns Hamas at the UN.
By contrast, India harbors no such diplomatic goals, which is why it supported the failed Canadian-initiated and Western-backed amendment explicitly condemning Hamas in that document. Although both Russia and India have suffered from terrorism, the exact manifestation thereof differs since former Western backing of what Moscow considered to have been such groups in Chechnya wasn’t as direct as that which India considers to be Pakistan’s continued backing of such designated groups in Kashmir.
For that reason, Russia could reputationally afford to vote for a resolution that doesn’t explicitly condemn a group that only some countries have designated as terrorists but which still carried out a terrorist attack against a neighboring country, while India can’t because it remains at risk of similar such attacks. Had it voted in support of the latest UNGA resolution after the amendment failed, then Delhi risked losing credibility on this issue the next time it falls victim to terrorism and brings it up at the UN.
Thomas L. Friedman informed readers in his latest New York Times piece here about India’s diplomatically driven international legal and soft power response to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, which eschewed the emotionally driven military one that Israel instinctively decided upon last month. He clarified that there are differences between Pakistan and Palestine that could account for India and Israel’s different reactions, but the point is that Delhi tends to rely more on diplomacy than Tel Aviv does.
Keeping mind India’s delicate balancing act between its condemnation of terrorism, its principled support of all states’ right to self-defense, international humanitarian law, preexisting UNSC resolutions, and its historical experience with these issues, it therefore makes sense why it abstained from the vote. In the event of another terrorist attack against it that Pakistan might once again be accused of at least partial complicity in, India needs to maintain a consistent stance towards this issue and all related ones.
Anything less such as seemingly downplaying Hamas’ role in sparking the latest conflict, which even President Putin recently said here was responsible for “the current phase of the Middle East crisis”, undermines India’s credibility and its national interests as decisionmakers understand them to be. Instead of obnoxiously impeding the advancement of others’ interests in this context by voting against the resolution like the US did, India wisely abstained in conformance with multipolar principles.
Observers must remember that the entire event was just an exercise in perception management for performative reasons as was explained in this analysis, ergo why India had to carefully balance between all relevant interests, especially its envisaged leadership of the Global South. It respects its fellow developing countries’ different stances towards the latest conflict and isn’t interested in pressuring them to change their views, but so too does it expect them to respect its own views and not pressure it either.
This pragmatic approach conforms with multipolar principles because it reaffirms every state’s sovereign right to promulgate policies in advance of their interests while defending their own in ways that don’t impede others’ whenever they diverge on issues that aren’t of direct national security importance. This is what multipolarity is all about, not the creation of some reactionary anti-Western global coalition like many in the Alt-Media Community mistakenly imagine, but the respectful management of differences.