In the backdrop of the recent general elections in India, much has been discussed about India’s policy going forward including relations with Israel. No doubt political and economic ties between the two nations have developed significantly over the past 20 years. Reports indicate that bilateral trade is close to $5 billion, which is still half of that between Israel and China, yet representative of the strides taken by both countries to invest in the relationship.
Relations have certainly come a long way as is evident by recent reports of Rafael being awarded the tender to supply the Indian army with anti-tank missiles worth half a billion dollars. But equally interesting is the evolution of India’s Middle East policy which deserve some attention. While writing a dissertation years ago, it was possible to identify four different approaches as they evolved over periods of time – from ideology to domestic politics through global dynamics and finally pragmatic self-interest.
Initially in the period preceding independence, India’s policy was one based on pure cultural ideology. India’s founding fathers simply could not comprehend the need for an independent Jewish state in the Middle East. The thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi published in 1938 represent some very interesting anecdotes on the issue. Not surprisingly India voted against the partition of Palestine and refused to formally recognize Israel.
The policy slowly began to shift in the fifties to take into account domestic considerations and primarily the sentiments of the Muslim population in India within the context of the dispute over Kashmir with Pakistan. Given the huge size of the Muslim population, India could not afford alienating them by recognizing the Jewish state, and so continued with their stance of limited diplomatic relations and refusal to open a consulate or embassy in Israel.
By the seventies India had become well entrenched in the global cold war and their policy metamorphosed into one based on international dynamics. Israel was an US ally with whom the Indian government did not see eye to eye. As India grew closer to the former Soviet Union, Pakistan looked for American and Chinese support in the Indian subcontinent. The India-Pakistan war in 1971 and the Yom Kippur war in 1973 between Israel and Egypt/Syria are case studies in which regional conflicts interlocked with the cold war rivalry.
This bipolar international structure continued to guide India’s foreign policy decision-making elite until the early nineties when the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc paved the way for another evolution of India’s policy – one that was based on realistic and pragmatic considerations of self-interest. The deep economic crisis after the first Gulf war in 1991 led the Indian government to unshackle its inhibitions, open up its ‘mixed economy’ and begin a process of rapprochement with the United States and also Israel.
It is said to understand the future, you need to analyze the past. Given the pattern, relations between the two countries can only get better. On the economic side, India is bound to increase business ties and place special emphasis on tapping Israel’s R&D skills, going by new PM Narendra Modi’s impressive record in developing the prosperous state of Gujarat. It’s also about time that ties transcend the traditional military, agriculture, water framework and start to include additional spheres as well. Investments by the Tata Group in a Tel Aviv University research fund focused on collaboration and innovation of new products is a push in the right direction.
It is also difficult to foresee a hardline stance being taken by the new government in domestic or global politics. Just as Israeli leaders have been known to change their vantage point upon entering office, similarly the Indian leadership will also take a more pragmatic approach with regards to China, Pakistan. In this case the often heard Hebrew phrase loosely translated as “what one sees from here, he does not see from there” is very much relevant.
For sure, greater focus will be placed on enhancing India’s security doctrine under the new leadership which is bound to provide a wide range of commercial opportunities to Israeli companies as well. But as long as the threats of terror and border disputes remain within a ‘manageable’ framework, the economic component and specifically getting annual growth back to the ambitious 10 per cent level will be the driving force of India’s strategy of the newly elected government.