An aspect of Indian foreign policy discourse that has remained unchanged since the Nehruvian days is India’s self-proclaimed leadership of the Global South. It is a title that Indian foreign policy experts tend to value a great deal. And yet, as the actions of South Africa at the International Court of Justice this week have demonstrated, there is a vast difference between proclaiming leadership and demonstrating leadership. By invoking the Genocide Convention against Israel and following through in the proceedings before the International Court of Justice, South Africa has shown us what demonstrating such leadership might look like.

On December 29, after multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza had been vetoed by the United States and the death toll in Gaza crossed approximately 20,000 people, South Africa filed an application at the International Court of Justice, invoking the Genocide Convention against Israel.

In this application, South Africa accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza and also violating a series of other obligations under the convention. South Africa requested the International Court of Justice to indicate provisional measures, which could, if granted, take the form of the court ordering Israel to cease its military operations in Gaza.

While the legal merits of this claim, including the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, are currently being heard at the Hague, the application itself is interesting. By invoking the Genocide Convention, South Africa has managed to both reiterate its own commitment to the International Court of Justice and by implication to the post World War II rules-based international order, and serve a sharp reminder to the West of their own obligations towards international humanitarian law – obligations, which, with respect to the Palestinian people, they are failing.

In terms of geopolitical gains, what South Africa is doing is perhaps best understood as an attempt to gain soft power through morality. This has been effective in two ways. First, it has made South Africa the de facto rallying point for an increasing number of states disgruntled with Israel’s unprecedented brutality in this current assault on Gaza, and frustrated with the United States’ efforts to block all meaningful international intervention in the situation, and second, it enables South Africa to directly influence a growing young population in the West disgruntled with their respective governments’ actions.

Several countries across South America and Asia, including Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Namibia, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela have expressed their formal support for South Africa’s case, as has the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the 22-member Arab League. Interestingly, no country apart from the United States has criticised the South African case. This is not insignificant.

The impact on young people in the West is even more interesting. When it comes to soft power, public sentiment matters as much, or more than state position. In the United States, polls indicate that 61% of voters s upport a ceasefire in Gaza. In the United Kingdom, a staggering 71% do. And yet, at the United Nations Security Council, the United States has repeatedly vetoed resolutions calling for a ceasefire, while the United Kingdom has abstained.

The United States meanwhile continues to arm and fund Israel. These public sentiments have been expressed in repeated mass demonstrations across the West. To a young population uncomfortable and frustrated with their own government’s role, South Africa’s position has become one to rally behind. Groups of New Yorkers have visited the South African permanent delegation at the United Nations to thank them for their actions, and interest in the International Court of Justice proceedings is unprecedented.

This has meant that even within the West, the idea of South Africa as an upholder of international morality, has been planted in a portion of the public imagination, with the imagery of a post-apartheid state challenging a state accused by many of apartheid making a particularly compelling impression. Irrespective of the outcome at the International Court of Justice, this is unquestionably a soft power gain, which can be built upon in the years to come.

On the face of it, this approach is reminiscent of the early Non-Aligned Movement years, where the relatively powerless newly decolonised states, including India, chose to create international space for themselves by making public commitments to non-aggression and anti-colonialism. Yet, there are important differences. The Non-Aligned Movement, despite its intentions, tended to be inward looking, with post-colonial states speaking predominantly to each other, propping each other up. South Africa on the other hand seems to be going for something bigger. They’re addressing themselves to the world in general, and the West in particular.

Importantly, they neither proclaim themselves to be representative of the Global South nor limit themselves to it. Instead, their statements set South Africa on an independent path, as a country that takes its obligations towards humanitarian law seriously. This is a marked shift from South Africa’s own failed endeavour to broker a ceasefire in Ukraine earlier in 2023. Overtly focused on the language of neutrality and centring African interests, they failed to cut ice with either Ukraine or Russia. The legal submissions at the International Court of Justice on the other hand allow it to forsake neutrality and directly advocate for both Palestinian interests and peace.

India by contrast has as far as possible stayed out of the limelight. Apart from an initial tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi offering his support to Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, its diplomatic positions have not changed significantly. The prime minister did not attend a special BRICS video conference on Gaza and India abstained on the October 27 United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a ceasefire. But with growing civilian casualties, India joined 153 states that voted for a ceasefire on December 12.

Despite Israeli pressure, and the apparent bonhomie enjoyed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with their Israeli counterparts, India has not specifically recognised Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

In the circumstances, this studied caution might safeguard India’s immediate interests, but it highlights the growing dissonance between India’s stated foreign policy aims and its actual relevance in the world today. It also ignores the fact that geopolitical influence is often built on reactions to unprecedented situations as they arise more than by carefully stage-managed extravaganzas.

Hosting the G-20 for example was portrayed as some sort of symbol of leadership, especially with respect to the Global South. And yet, a few months later, India stands accused by two prominent members of the G-20 of carrying out an illegal extraterritorial assassination programme and remains mired in petty geopolitical dramas with neighbouring countries.

Irrespective of the outcome at the International Court of Justice, South Africa has provided a master class in demonstrating leadership through effective, courageous and results-oriented international action. India would do well to take note.

Sarayu Pani is a lawyer. Her email address is @sarayupani.