Narendra Modi’s election victory in India is a significant event for Israel and the Jewish people. In May 2014, Modi, supported by many of India’s young, led the right-wing Baratya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in India’s parliamentary elections. His party will have an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament.
The BJP’s success was widely expected, but few predicted such a crushing victory. Modi was for many years Chief Minister of the Indian State of Gujarat where his economic policies yielded high growth rates. He is known as a dynamic and efficient leader who has never been accused of personal corruption. However, he was blamed for not having prevented the bloody riots in Gujarat in 2002 when Hindu militants murdered hundreds of Muslim civilians. Both the United States and the United Kingdom ostracized Modi. In 2013, Gujarat’s Supreme Court absolved Modi of culpability for the 2002 violence, but among the victims and their sympathizers, suspicion and bitterness linger on.
Modi’s election is a watershed. Born in 1950, he is the first politician born after India’s independence (1947). His victory terminates a long period that was dominated by the Congress Party, ruled by the descendants of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Sonia Gandhi, the main surviving member of this “dynasty”, admitted as much during a chaotic press conference.
As world leaders were falling over each other to congratulate the until recently shunned Modi, speculation about changes in India’s foreign policy was rife. All assume that Modi will pursue an assertive “India first” policy. Some expect him to be more hardline in respect to China, the United States, and Pakistan. However, all commentators agree that one country will be among of the main beneficiaries of Modi’s victory: Israel. Modi has visited Israel as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He never disguised his admiration for Israel’s achievements. He expressed his affection for the old Jewish community of Ahmedabat, the capital of Gujarat.
To understand the full significance of Modi’s victory for Israel, it is important to dispel a major error. Most of the leaders of the defeated Congress Party were not at all enemies of Israel. In public, they kept Israel at arm’s length not because they were hostile or feared the reaction of Arab countries but because they feared the response of India’s Muslims. India’s 180 million or more Muslims are an important “vote bank” which the Congress Party could not afford to lose, or so their leaders believed. Modi’s victory has shown once and for all that one can be an outspoken friend of Israel and still become prime minister of India. Israel was barely mentioned during the election campaign.
It stands to reason that Modi and his ministers will be more open to meeting with Israeli leaders in public and to showing friendship for Israel. India’s growing importance will make sure that this change has major echoes not only in India, but in many neighboring Asian countries which have strong links with India, in the large Indian diaspora communities, and last but not least in the Western countries which keep admonishing Israel about its apparently growing isolation. In India, Israel has a lot going for itself. The Indian people threw the Congress Party out because of its corruption. A few days after Modi’s victory, a senior Indian wrote to an Israeli friend that he was deeply impressed that former Prime Minister Olmert was sentenced to jail. “How many countries can do that?” he asked.
It is also possible that India will be less shy than in the past to throw its political and economic weight around in international fora or even in the Middle East. Nevertheless, we should not be surprised if Modi sets limits to India’s expected opening up to Israel:
- Modi cannot pursue a purely nationalist Hindu policy in a country where maybe eighteen percent of the population is Muslim. His victory must not become a “lightening rod” for Islamic terrorism, or for Hindu violence.
- India’s big industry supports Modi. This industry has enormous investments and interests in the Muslim Middle East, but none in Israel.
- India will continue to support the Palestinian cause but perhaps less aggressively than in the past.
- India will probably maintain good relations with Iran, for many reasons, including their shared hostility to Pakistan.
All in all, Modi’s victory was a good day for Israel – a ray of hope in the country’s difficult situation.