The dust has settled after the frenzied activity of India’s general elections, and the resounding victory of the BJP’s Narendra Modi, allowing a more considered assessment of the ramifications, including a judicious look at the likely impact on an important element of India’s external ties — New Delhi’s strategic ties with Israel.
The first piece I wrote on the strategic significance of the Indo-Israeli relationship was in the late-1990s. It was a policy paper entitled “Indo-Israeli Strategic Cooperation as an US National Interest”, which I co-authored with a prominent Indian intellectual, the late professor M.L. Sondhi. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first work involving an Israeli academic that identified the strategic potential inherent in a partnership between these two very different but very similar democracies — the one comprising a minute sliver of land on the eastern flank of the Mediterranean Sea, the other a gigantic land mass in South Asia. Both emerged from British colonialism, less than a year apart, in the latter part of the 1940s. Together, they straddle a vast swathe of western Asia, comprised of an assorted blend of tyrannies — ranging from military dictatorships through nepotistic monarchies to despotic theocracies.
We characterised the affinity between the two countries not as a narrow and transient “perception of common interests” but as a far broader and enduring “common perception of interests” — in other words, not so much a transitory confluence of common prevailing goals, but a long-term common understanding of what national goals should be. The difference is profound and significant and likely to become more so, especially in light of the emerging global changes the international system is presently undergoing — particularly in regard to the shifting balance of global economic power and the changes in the US-Israel relationship.
We pointed to the remarkable resilience of democracies in both countries: “…the political milieu of both India and Israel is one that might have been expected to be highly conducive to the growth of dictatorship. Both countries have had to contend with threats to national security, periods of economic hardship, political assassination and ethno-religious rivalries. The fact that authoritarianism has not taken root in either country bears eloquent testimony to the deeprooted commitment of both to the principles of liberty, pluralism and the right of dissent.”
Is the relationship now poised to go into “overdrive”? While it is true that diplomatic relations were established under the rule of the Congress party (in 1992), there is little doubt that the warmth between the two nations increased perceptibly after the BJP came to power in 1998. It is also true that when the Congress surprisingly regained power in 2004, the fear that the relationship would deteriorate significantly did not materialise. However, it is difficult to deny a sense of reticence in the relationship with Israel on the part of the Congress, formed, as it was, in the ideological crucible of “non-aligned”, “anti-colonial” doctrine, which tended to see Israel somewhat tainted with colonialist trimmings.
But with what Reuters termed last month’s “trouncing [of] the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in a seismic political shift”, which reflected “the most resounding election victory India has seen in 30 years”, such inhibitions are likely to be cast aside. Indeed, following Modi’s landslide victory, there are strong expectations that the warmth will return to bilateral ties. One prominent US source went so far as to predict that “Modi’s victory has the potential to send these efforts into overdrive”.
Modi’s victory comes at an auspicious time. There are distinct indications that the Indian public is very amenable to closer bonds with Israel. Surveys conducted by Israel’s foreign ministry reveal very high levels of popular support for Israel — topping even that in the US. According to one well-placed Israeli diplomat, “Rural Indians see Israel as an agricultural superpower,” while “urban India sees Israel as a leader of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
The potential for cooperation between the two countries is almost limitless, ranging from nanotechnology to mega infrastructure projects. However, a few spheres can be singled out as likely to be of particular interest: one, intelligence and counter-intelligence collaboration; two, naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean theatre; three, development of rural India; and four, sidestepping EU sanctions.
Intelligence and counter-intelligence collaboration: Given Modi’s robust record in dealing with unrest during his incumbency as chief minister of Gujarat, it seems plausible to surmise his administration’s approach to the threat of radical terror is likely to converge with that of the Israeli security establishment. Like-minded perceptions regarding common threats will, in all probability, lead to enhanced collaboration in intelligence and counter-intelligence activities. This is certainly likely to apply to collection and sharing of information, and perhaps might even extend to operational levels.
Naval cooperation: As India’s international stature has grown, so has the importance of its navy. The Indian Ocean, long of paramount importance for Delhi, has become increasingly significant strategically for Israel too, and not just for maintaining the security of trade routes to its expanding markets in Asia. With the heightened menace of Iran, it is becoming an important theatre for Israeli naval operations — not least amongst these is its submarine-borne second-strike capability. Both India and Israel have very clear common interests in preserving the security of navigation and developing the availability of logistical support for surface and sub-surface vessels.
Development of rural India: Perhaps the greatest challenge facing India today is the development of its rural sector, where 70 per cent of its population lives, with many of them close to or below the poverty line. Modi has already demonstrated his awareness of this sector’s crucial importance by declaring immediately after the results that he will assign top priority to it. Perhaps more than any other field, this is where Israel can make a dramatic contribution, not only in enhancing the performance of Indian agriculture but also in upgrading the level of rural life, including the creation of non-farm employment, such as rural tourism, medicine, recreation, cottage industries, etc.
Sidestepping EU sanctions: For Israel, the development of economic ties with Asian powers in general, and India in particular, has a strategic significance that goes well beyond commercial profit. Facing the spectre of economic sanctions, brandished particularly by the EU, the Indian market, with the growing purchasing power of a burgeoning Indian middle class and a convergence of the patterns of consumerism with those in the West, provides an intriguing alternative, offering huge opportunities for Israeli enterprises.
It may yet be early days to make definitive judgement calls, but there is certainly much room for optimism as to the future relationship between what is undoubtedly the world’s largest democracy, India, and what is arguably the world most beleaguered one, Israel.
The writer, a former advisor to the Israeli government, is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies