With a focus on Hindu nationalism and pro-market policies, newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promises to propel the country in a new direction. India and Israel have enjoyed increasingly close military and economic cooperation over the past two decades, and Modi also brings to his new post strong personal and business ties with Israel dating to his time as chief minister of one of India’s most wealthy and industrialized states.
While traditional Israeli allies in Europe remain in economic stagnation and produce increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the Jewish state, Modi’s election may further elevate Israel’s bond with the world’s largest democracy.
“We are very confident he will give the proper attention to the relations with Israel because he understands the strategic bond,” Anat Bernstein-Reich, president of the Israel-India Friendship Association and vice president of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce, told JNS.
Differences in size and culture aside, India and Israel have many modern and historical similarities. Hinduism and Judaism are among the world’s oldest existing religions, and both share ethno-religious components that set them apart from other major faiths. At the same time, both religions have intricate systems of laws, purity codes, and dietary restrictions that define their communities. In modern times, both India and Israel achieved independence from Great Britain during the late 1940s, after long internal struggles and bloody partition plans.
Yet for its first few decades of independence, India, under the direction of then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Congress Party, sought friendlier relations with Arab states and aligned itself with the third-world Non-Aligned Movement, which was often hostile to Israel. India viewed the Jewish state as a proxy of the imperial Western powers.
This mentality didn’t change until 1992, when the end of the Cold War forced Indian leaders to rethink their global strategy, including relations with Israel. In January 1992, India and Israel opened their first bilateral diplomatic missions.
Since then, one of the most important aspects of Indo-Israeli relations has been military cooperation, with Israel becoming India’s second-largest military importer behind Russia.
“Today, military cooperation is considered to be one of the most important aspects of their ties,” said Alvite Ningthoujam, a Ph.D. candidate at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who has researched India-Israel military cooperation with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Ningthoujam explained that the Indo-Israeli military relationship has evolved over the years “from a mere seller-buyer relationship” to a “relationship that has been transformed into that of joint-collaborations.”
“India imports very sophisticated weapon systems such missiles, arms and ammunition, electronic warfare systems, radio-communication systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, etc., and there are several other deals in the pipeline,” Ningthoujam said.
Even though their military ties are strong, Israel and India have shared a mixed relationship since 1992, largely as a result of the Congress Party’s years of vocal support for the Palestinian cause as well as its reluctance to criticize Iran’s nuclear program.
But this hasn’t been the case universally in India. Modi’s conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now has outright majority control of India’s parliament for the first time in the country’s history, has longstanding warm ties with Israel dating back to when the BJP was part of a government coalition in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“We are sure the BJP will give a boost to India-Israel relations based on past experience with BJP,” Bernstein-Reich said.
Ideological affinity aside, many inside the BJP are extremely grateful for the discrete military support Israel provided to India during its 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan, when Russia and other allies refused to help India.
In recognition of Israel’s support, top BJP officials visited Israel in 2000, which eventually led to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s historic visit to India in 2003.