A three-week Indian cultural festival will commence in Israel later this month to commemorate two decades of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Republic of India and the State of Israel. It will be an occasion where the melange of Indian food, dance, and Bollywood will no doubt be celebrated with paeans being sung celebrating the democratic values in the two countries. Of course, it has not always been this way – India and Israel were on opposite sides of the Cold War, with the former being a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause routinely castigating the Jewish state for its “occupation” of Palestine, even as Yasser Arafat was routinely received in New Delhi with a red carpet by his “sister” Indira Gandhi.
The end of the Cold War also ended the ideological moorings that had plagued India’s vision of world affairs, and in 1992 India’s Congress-led government headed by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao sought to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. In doing so, he reversed a four decade-old policy, ushering India into a full-blown embrace of Israel reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s grand opening to China in 1972, laced in Kissingerian realism. After all, decades of support for the Palestinian cause had not transformed into any visible Arab support for India on Kashmir and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summits had become little more than an annual India-bashing exercise. Furthermore, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had freed up the battle-hardened mujahedeen to take their fights to other lands, and a massively rigged election in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1987 made it ready fodder for waging an insurgency against Indian rule. The demise of the Soviet Union meant that New Delhi had to scout the international horizon for new partners even as it did its best to navigate the choppy waters of international diplomacy. Israel provided a clean slate for such a new beginning to be made, and every Indian government since 1992, irrespective of its political colour, has engaged Israel and transformed the relationship into a truly strategic one.
A flurry of diplomatic visits between India and Israel in the last decade has brought a highly secretive relationship out of the closet and has become a cornerstone of each other’s security policy. In September 2003, Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India – a visit that raised hackles in Pakistan and much of the Arab world pointing towards New Delhi’s changed paradigm vis-à-vis the Middle East, and indeed underlining a muscular strategic orientation intended for both international and domestic audiences.
In 2008, Israel surpassed Russia to become India’s leading arms supplier providing New Delhi with everything from hi-tech radar and surveillance systems, nigh-vision equipment and anti-ballistic missile shields, with defence cooperation gradually moving from a seller-buyer relationship towards joint production of military equipment. The same year, an Indian rocket helped launch an Israeli spy satellite and discussions have been underway between the two countries since 2007 for a free trade agreement to boost non-military trade from the current US$ 4.2 billion to US$ 12 billion in the next four years. A record 40,000 Israelis visited India last year, mostly after completing their mandatory military service, while the corresponding figure for Indians travelling to Israel was over 20,000, laying a key foundation for people-to-people understanding.
However, a large number of critics both in India and abroad see this as not just a security partnership but as a relationship that has strong religious and ideological roots. For critics argue that this is a nexus of political expediency between Jewish Israel and Hindu-majority India against Muslims. Repeated pronouncements about fighting “forces of terrorism together with religious fundamentalism” are seen as a euphemism for fighting Islamists. The fact that ties between the two nations flourished during the tenure of the Hindu-nationalist centre-right wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government fuels this perception. This perception was strengthened in 2003 when India’s then National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra while addressing a gathering of the American Jewish Community in Washington called for a trilateral alliance between the United States, India and Israel to “jointly face the same ugly face of modern-day terrorism” while contending that “such an alliance would have the political will and moral authority to take bold decisions in extreme cases of terrorist provocation.” Coming as it did barely a year after the September 11 attacks, the proposed alliance acquired ideological trappings fuelling fears of a Huntingtonian clash of civilisations.
However, it is imperative to cast the India-Israel narrative in a wider net, both for long-term sustenance of the relationship and for the promise that it may hold. Sure enough, India-Israel ties took off during the BJP regime whose leaders sought to inject an ideological colour that washed well with the regime’s domestic constituencies of hard-line Hindus, but the fact is that every government since 1992 has looked to strengthening and broadening the entire gamut of the India-Israeli relationship, and this includes three Congress governments as well as the short-lived Third Front government in the mid-1990s. This has been part of a concerted effort as part of a broader strategic doctrine to engage Israel and in doing so infuse a much-needed degree of balance to India’s Middle East policy. Indeed, as New Delhi assumes a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and campaigns for permanent membership in the Council, its behaviour would be adjudicated by the international community in terms of India’s ability to emerge as an effective and credible international interlocutor on a host of global issues including the contentious Arab-Israeli conflict. This would have to translate as an excellent working relationship with Israel as well as a host of Arab states and New Delhi has been extremely adept at walking the diplomatic tightrope having hosted leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Syria amongst others in the last five years. With great power comes great responsibility and India, if it chose to enter the Middle East’s diplomatic minefield, has all the credentials and evokes the trust to emerge as a key interlocutor.
For Israel, India represents a country that has both the world’s second largest Muslim population and also a nation that has never had a history of anti-Semitism despite being home to a small, yet significant Jewish population with the first set of Jews arriving in South India 2500 years ago. For a country witnessing the strengthening of right-wing conservative forces, courting India enables Israel to ward off criticism of being a nation antithetical to Muslims besides presenting a genuine opportunity for peace and reconciliation between the two great Abrahamic faiths and to its credit, Tel Aviv understands this. In a historic first, the Israeli ambassador to India, Mark Sofer visited one of the most renowned Sufi shrines in South Asia, at Ajmer Sharif, in September 2010 on the occasion of roza iftar and said, “Israel respects Islam and loves Muslims. We are sons and daughters of Abraham. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the offshoots of the same faith and that makes us cousins.” Only three years before, in August 2007, a delegation of Muslim leaders headed by Maulana Jamil Ilyasi, president of the All India Organisation of Imams and Mosques which represents about 500,000 imams, headed the Indian delegation for a ‘dialogue of democracies’ designed to foster understanding between the two peoples, highlighting the diversity in the Muslim community and offering a reminder that the majority of Muslims live outside the Arab world and benefit from democracy. Crucially, the trip was aimed at refuting the link between religion and state in the Arab-Israeli conflict, suggesting that democratic states can overcome antagonism over longstanding religious differences. Debunked throughout the trip was the notion that Israel was the mortal enemy of the world’s global community of Muslims or the ummah.
India’s courtship of Israel cannot be the preserve of one national party with a particular religious appeal for it goes against the very tenets of pluralism that forms the cornerstone of the very ‘idea of India.’ To arrest the perception of the India-Israel relationship being an ostensible marriage of theocratic elements in the two states, the current centre-left Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government must wrest back the initiative, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should embark on a historic visit to the State of Israel to put a pan-Indian secular seal on Delhi’s Tel Aviv policy by becoming the first ever Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. More importantly, it would be an affirmation of India’s success at managing religious diversity against incredible odds, in the process strengthening secular elements within Israel’s polity, which in recent months has displayed a worrying inclination for hard-line religious conservatism. For the broader Middle East narrative, a visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Israel (and the Palestinian Territories) would send the unambiguous message of New Delhi’s intention to shoulder responsibilities beyond its immediate security periphery while casting the Arab-Israeli conflict as one that is less of a religious conflict and more of a geopolitical one. Doing so would surely send a boost to peaceniks across the region – India owes it to the international community and to its own history.