Ties between Israel and India are likely to strengthen following the recent landslide electoral victory of the Indian People’s Party (BJP). The Hindu nationalists obtained an absolute majority in parliament and saw their poster boy, 64 year old Narendra Modi, being sworn in as the country’s 15th Prime Minister.
His Israeli counterpart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 16 was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Modi, whom the New York based International Business Times defined as “Israel’s best friend in South Asia.”
This is a remarkable turn of events, given the fact that relations between India and Israel have long been a troublesome affair. Much to the chagrin of the early Zionists, India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi never supported the creation of a Jewish state.
“The cry for a national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me,” he wrote in 1938. “The sanction for it is sought in the Bible, but the Palestine of Biblical conception is not a geographical tract… It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.”
Furthermore, Gandhi strongly believed in secularism, which naturally did not sit well with the conception of Israel as a “Jewish” homeland. Ironically, Gandhi was killed for his secular views by a Hindu nationalist six months after the foundation of India on August 15, 1947.
For decades, however, his views on Israel would continue to dominate Delhi’s foreign policy. India only recognized Israel in 1992 and ever since, hot on the heels of the BJP’s gradual rise to power, relations have flourished.
The love affair between Zionists and Hindu nationalists should not come as a surprise. First of all, they share a similar ideology. Based on a glorifying and rather selective reading of India’s past, the “Hindutva” movement, with the BJP as its political arm, sees the country first and foremost as the national home of the Hindus.
Ideally, the BJP would like to change “India” to “Hindustan,” mirroring the name of its next door neighbor and archenemy Pakistan. Emphasizing India’s Hindu-ness, the BJP sees the country’s minorities, especially its some 140 million Muslims, as “foreign elements” and second-rate citizens, while Modi and his cohorts have often praised Israel as a bulwark in the global war against Islamic terrorism.
“The entire world acknowledges that Israel has effectively and ruthlessly countered terror in the Middle East,” read a BJP statement issued during Ariel Sharon’s visit to India in 2003. “Since India and Israel are both fighting a war against terrorism, therefore, we should learn a lesson or two from them.”
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, bilateral trade between India and Israel has grown significantly from some $200 million in 1992 (mainly diamonds) to nearly $4.4 billion in 2013, when India became Israel’s 10th largest trading partner. Worth some $2.5 billion, diamonds and precious stones are still the bulk of today’s trade. Other Israeli exports include chemicals, minerals and, last but not least, arms.
Israel is one of the world’s biggest arms exporters, while India is one its biggest importers. According to the Israeli Defense Ministry, the country’s defense exports in 2012 amounted to $7 billion, some $1 to 1.5 billion of which headed to India. And there is much, much more to come, for the BJP aims to spend billions on a complete overhaul and modernization of the Indian armed forces, transforming India from an arms importer into an arms manufacturer.
Currently, foreign companies that invest 26 percent or more in Indian defense projects must commit to the establishment of joint manufacturing ventures in India. Yet, this has often proved an obstacle for foreign investors. India now intends to liberalize the market by, for example, raising the threshold from 26 to 49 percent.
When it comes to opening up markets, Modi is no doubt the man for the job. The son of a humble tea seller is a stern believer in capitalism. Under his 14-year rule as Chief Minister, the State of Gujarat embraced an all-out neoliberal agenda. With tax breaks and other incentives, large corporations were persuaded to establish themselves in India’s most western state.
The moral of this story? Modi is good for Hindus and good for big business, and as such could be the best news Israel has had for quite some time.