The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the party of the Hindu Right – has won the Indian election with a decisive mandate. The victory itself has everything to do with domestic policy, notably the growth-led strategy by the Congress government that drove inequality upwards and that fostered corruption in business life. The BJP began its career as a party with a programmatic hatred of minorities – mainly the 120 million Indian Muslims – but has since smartly camouflaged that odium behind the rhetoric of good governance. But the anti-minority sentiment is not absent; it was simply well-handled, with the BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi, winking toward that part of his party’s beliefs but speaking fulsomely about the need for economic growth. It is the latter that catapulted his party to its major victory.
The BJP is the electoral heir to a long-tradition of Hindu nationalism that has roots in the 19th century and was consolidated in the 20th century around the ideology of Hindutva (Hinduness). Hindutva intellectuals looked around the planet for examples of other religious nationalisms for inspiration, and, naturally, a few eyes settled on Israel after its defeat of the Arab armies in 1967. In Organiser, the periodical of the RSS – the brain center of the Hindutva movement – Chitragupta asked in 1967 why the Israelis and the Hindus fared better in their struggle against the Arabs and the Pakistanis respectively. He had in mind India’s defeat of the Pakistani armies in the 1965 war, as well as Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six Day War. The problem, Chitragupta argued, is not in armaments but in the civilizational advantages enjoyed by Hindus and Jews. “The Islamic world is not destitute of genius, or ability,” he wrote, “but it has not been given a dog’s chance because it is under the benumbing control of a rigid theology and petrified dogma.”
This dismissal of Islam came alongside the combined praise of Judaism and Hinduism for “their devotion to the pursuit of truth without blinders.” It is this kind of civilizational connection that roots Hindutva’s very strong pro-Israeli sentiment. Hindutva and Zionism shared a muscular nationalism that developed – because of their context – a programmatic apathy to Islam and Muslims.
In 2003, I wrote a book called Namaste Sharon – it was about the visit of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India. Sharon was the first Israeli leader to come to India. Between 1948 and 1991, India did not have diplomatic ties with Israel. It placed itself firmly in the Palestinian camp. When the Congress government decided to abandon its national development economic policies in 1991, it jettisoned large parts of its non-aligned foreign policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Third World project drew elites across the world to seek a new rapprochement with the United States. Congress leaders quite openly said to me that the highway to Washington, DC, would best go through Tel Aviv. Indeed, that was the reason for India’s shift of policy in 1991. It took a decade to cement ties, and then in 2003, Ariel Sharon walked to New Delhi on the new bridge that the two countries had built.
Relations between India and Israel grew as a result of a pragmatic need for the Congress-led government to cement ties with Washington, DC, and its allies. From the very first days of the new relationship, elements that remain intact came into place – commercial ties, particularly in the tele-communications and energy sectors as well as the burgeoning arms trade from Israel to India; military ties, with the two countries collaborating on counter-terrorism techniques; cultural ties, with Israeli tourism transforming places such as Dharamsala and Khajuraho, where Hebrew signs are now legion and shopkeepers have learned enough Hebrew to converse with their guests (who are often men and women recently off duty from their terrible jobs at checkpoints – they turn to Tibetan meditation in Dharamsala as a way to assuage their guilt). These ties increased during the Congress-led government of the 1990s, the BJP-led government from 1998-2004, and the Congress-led government of the 2000s. They have become part and parcel of the Indian business and security infrastructure, with the most recent figures showing, for instance, that Indo-Israeli trade in military goods is now at $10 billion per year. India is the largest importer of Israeli military goods.
Only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) amongst the Indian political parties seeks a shift in the direction of relations between India and Israel. Its manifesto from 2014 says, “extend full support to the cause of a Palestinian state; sever military and security ties with Israel.” There is a mainstream consensus over Indo-Israeli ties.
Israel’s Best Friend in South Asia?
If that is the case, why did journalist Palash Ghosh write in the Indian business press that Narendra Modi is “Israel’s best friend in South Asia”? After all, much of the Indian ruling class is committed to the military and commercial ties with Israel. Ghosh reflected something that had been pointed out by the Israeli academic Yiftah Shapir (Tel Aviv University) recently. India, said Shapir, is not a reliable ally since it has not fully “given up its non-aligned identity. India’s behavior in international forums does not indicate that it can be relied on to help Israel in any difficult situation. India’s position on all aspects of the Israeli-Arab conflict is not a neutral one, rather is decidedly pro-Palestinian.”
Shapir comes to this discussion with the view that anything that is not 100% pro-Israeli is 100% pro-Palestinian. He does not acknowledge the distance that the Indian ruling class has moved since the 1980s on West Asian policy. Indeed, during the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2012, the Indian statement was so anemic that the Palestinian Ambassador in Delhi, Adil Shaban Sadeq said it was “too cautious.” India was pushed to release a second statement that criticized Israel for its “disproportionate use of force…which resulted in the death of innocent people.” Nonetheless, the Indian foreign policy establishment and the ruling bloc have straddled their interest in deepened commercial and military ties with Israel alongside a remainder of sentiment for the Palestinian cause.
It needs to be underscored that this latter sentiment is also undergirded by India’s reliance upon Gulf oil, which comes at a small political price. If India were to abandon its rhetorical and diplomatic fealty to the Palestinian cause, it is likely that the Saudis – who also maintain this double game – would not be kind to India’s oil needs and its need to send over seven million Indian workers to the Gulf (these workers remit funds to India which helps balance its foreign reserves). In March 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia, “There is no issue more important for peace and stability in the region than the question of Palestine. Far too long the brave people of Palestine have been denied their just, legitimate and inalienable rights, including most of all the establishment of a sovereign, independent and viable Palestinian state.” This is the kind of sentiment that Shapir has in mind.
The BJP does not share this double view – bullish on the commercial and military ties, bearish on the full diplomatic support for Israeli actions. It comes to the project with an ambition to create a new continent of diplomatic allegiances – Washington, Tokyo, Tel Aviv — an axis of countries that wish to constrain China and the “Muslim World.” Two years ago, Modi’s guru, the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat gave an important address to the Bharatiya Vichar Manch. The main theme was what he perceived as the weakness of Indian foreign policy. “Our image in the international arena is that of a meek nation,” he complained. “Israel and Japan’s vision has made them power nations.” What is needed is a more muscular policy to “effectively counter China,” This policy had to be mirrored on that of the Israelis and the Japanese, two powers that leveraged their national vision to bring disproportionate gains.
What Bhagwat did not mention is that both countries rely on US funds for military aid and a US military umbrella. Their “self-reliance” is utterly compromised by their place in the US military architecture (a Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who wanted to remove a US base, for instance, was hounded out of office in 2010 by the US government). Both the Congress and the BJP seem unfazed by their entry into the US orbit.
Modi had been cagey on foreign policy during the election campaign. It is not his strong suit. A denial of a US visa for a decade rankled. He did indicate a turn toward Japan and an entente with China on the outstanding border issues. Modi said little about West Asia, and hardly anything on Israel. The state that he governed for the past decade has close commercial ties with Israeli firms, but that is the case in most of India. It is not itself an indication of anything.
Modi’s Hindutva, however, has a well-worn track record with Israel. It seeks not only commercial and military ties, but a civilizational and diplomatic connection. This would be welcome in Tel Aviv, which is why there is already talk of a Modi visit to Israel – the first Indian head of government to make this trip. Will India be able to make up the fourth vote on behalf of Israel in the UN along with the United States, Palau and Nauru? It is unlikely. India’s links with the Gulf are necessary and would be jeopardized by any shallow diplomatic pivot to Israel. But that is what Modi’s BJP would prefer.