Soft power and India’s changing approach to Israel under Modi

Earlier this year, construction workers from India began arriving in Israel to mitigate the country's labour shortage. The number of Indian migrant workers in Israel now looks set to reach 6,000. While the scheme is indeed helping to reduce India's unemployment rate, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan argues we should also see it as an exercise in soft power by the Modi government

Sowing the seeds

In May 2023, the governments of India and Israel entered into an agreement to provide employment opportunities to Indian construction workers. Their aim was to address India’s unemployment problem, and Israel’s infrastructural needs. The first 65 workers entered Israel in early 2024, and the plan is to have 6,000 workers in employment by the end of May. So, it is a positive-sum game.

This agreement, however, is also part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy, in the form of soft power.

Soft power

Soft power exploits a nation’s political and cultural resources to promote its foreign policy objectives. Mutual interests and power relations govern emigration processes, and migration may achieve diplomatic goals. Cross-border migration is prominent in foreign policy-making. Such policies may encourage diaspora to engage in lobbying, and to generate remittances that help the origin state achieve its development goals.

In the case of labour emigration from India, highly skilled migrants who venture to the Global North are instruments of soft power. Low earners, who seek employment to alleviate financial hardship, rarely form part of India’s diaspora narrative. Now, however, they have been incorporated into Modi's soft-power strategy.

Unemployment crisis

Israel’s labour supply shortage is the result of Israel’s mass revocation of Palestinian construction workers, who had, until the current conflict, represented a significant chunk of Israel's construction workforce. India’s unemployment rate currently stands at 8.3%. The agreement to recruit 100,000 Indian workers will thus significantly relieve India's unemployment problem.

Until the current conflict, Palestinian labourers represented a significant chunk of Israel's construction workforce

Israel’s employment venture is unlike typical migration schemes, where migrants gain naturalisation and family reunification rights. Instead, these contract labour schemes are capped at a maximum residency period of 63 months. The people recruited are likely to endure hardship, and to enter into a state of ‘permanent temporariness,’ in which they lack any pathway towards residence and political agency typically concomitant with migration. Thus, the recruitment initiative may provide only temporary respite for the Indian citizens it ostensibly aims to help.

Weak points

Is there any moral justification for the employment, without safeguards, of Indian workers in a conflict-stricken region? Labour unions in India have been vocal in their opposition to the recruitment. Unions claim the project's approach is dehumanising, and merely commodifies India’s workforce overseas.

Indian construction unions claim the Israel recruitment drive is dehumanising, and merely commodifies India’s workforce overseas

The Emigration Check Required (ECR) scheme is a protective measure to prevent potential discrimination and exploitation of workers employed overseas. India has not included Israel under its ambit. Citing Israel’s membership in OECD and thus, automatic protection of labour rights, India has chosen to exclude Israel from the ECR mechanism.

More recruitment drives are on the horizon. The Indian government must therefore take urgent action – such as enrolling Israel in the ECR or a similar protective framework – to ensure these exploitative practices do not continue.

Conflict is currently escalating in West Asia. Governments are warning against any travel to Israel and Iran. It thus remains to be seen how this recruitment process will unfold. Clearly, there is pressing need for a safeguarding mechanism for Indian citizens overseas.

A change in India’s approach to Israel?

The current recruitment drive is a hallmark of India’s claim to be a global hub for skilled and semi-skilled workers. More interesting, however, is India's role in the ongoing conflict in West Asia.

Historically, India has championed the Palestinian cause, but it strongly condemned the 2023 Hamas-led terror attacks. India began formal diplomatic engagements with Israel only in 1992. Relations have since evolved, and India now views Israel as a major connection. Israel's uses range from chief defence supplier to reliable partner in counterterrorism to significant source of technical cooperation.

Historically, India has championed the Palestinian cause, but it strongly condemned the 2023 Hamas-led terror attacks

India has significantly shifted its stance towards Palestine. Before Modi came to power, India consistently voted in favour of Palestine in UN settings. It abstained from some votes explicitly condemning Israel’s actions but did not abstain from condemning terror outfits like Hamas. At the UN’s Economic and Social Council in 2019, India voted to deny observer status to Palestinian NGO Shahed. At the International Court of Justice in 2023, India abstained from a UNGA resolution that required an advisory opinion on the ‘prolonged occupation’ of Palestine by Israel.

Immediately after the 7 October attack, Modi issued a statement emphasising how India stood 'in solidarity with Israel'. Analysts have long speculated about the BJP-led government’s historical admiration for Israel, and Modi's statement only encouraged further speculation. Nevertheless, India has restated its desire for a two-state solution to the crisis, and for an end to the violence. Thus, it is likely that alignment with Israel is a strategy to ease political tensions.

Strategic alignment

India’s current emigration drive is a strategy to advance its national interests. India eyes a ‘new Middle East,’ which it hopes will include a peaceful and stable West Asia. Recent efforts by the I2U2 minilateral group, along with the inception of the India-Middle East Economic Corridor, aim to generate significant prosperity in the region.

India’s cross-migration agreement with Israel is lending the country a helping hand, and working to alleviate political tensions in the region. Yet the ongoing devastation in Gaza is, of course, a significant barrier to achieving its aims.

Employment opportunities in Israel are temporary, and Indian migrant workers may, in the future, require access to other West Asian countries. It will therefore be interesting to see how the rest of West Asia reacts to India’s latest projection of soft power.

India is attempting a delicate balancing act in West Asia by managing Israel’s infrastructure ambitions and addressing its own unemployment crisis. Yet, it remains the responsibility of the BJP government to safeguard its citizens abroad in light of the ongoing conflict in West Asia. Without such safeguards, any soft-power projection mechanism will be rendered moot.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Lakshmy Ramakrishnan
Lakshmy Ramakrishnan

Lakshmy recently earned her MA in International Relations from King's College London.

Her dissertation delved into the role of political actors and the media in framing Covid-19 as a security threat in India.

Lakshmy also holds a BSc and an MSc in Biomedical Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and Manipal University, India.

She has honed her skills as a researcher and educator in these fields and is a regular contributor to publications like Nature India, Journal of Political Inquiry, and International Affairs Forum.

Lakshmy is enthusiastic about applying her expertise to the realm of international affairs, with a particular interest in research areas connected to global health security, conflict, and diplomacy.

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