India-Israel Relations: Indian Left’s clandestine affair with Israel

This week India and Israel signed three key agreements strengthening security cooperation, marking a major milestone in 22-year-old diplomatic ties.

India’s main opposition party the Centre-Right “Bharatiya Janata Party” (BJP) has been an open advocate of strong ties with Israel. However it has been the overtly reluctant Center-Left Congress Party that has presided over past 8 years of burgeoning India-Israel relations.

Firstly, to understand Indian politics it would be wrong to freely apply the classical notions of “Left” and “Right”. This labeling is even more misleading when applied to India’s ruling Congress Party. The “Grand Old Party” of Indian politics is made up of individuals and groups sharing diverse and sometimes even diverging views.

In early 90s, veteran Congress Party leader and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao took two earth-shaking decisions that continue to shape India to this day. He pushed through the free market reforms and paved the way for diplomatic relations with Israel.

Prime Minister Rao made Congress Party shed decades of ideological baggage and infused pragmatism into the national debate. He reached out to the opposing political blocks and forged a consensus on market reforms and diplomatic relations with Israel. This political consensus stands even to this day.

The Congress Party has often been attacked by right-wing critics for its reluctance or even timidity on matters related to Israel. However, to appropriately judge Congress Party’s position, one must realize that unlike the main opposition party the Hindu Nationalist BJP the Congress Party relies heavily on Muslim electorates and Leftwing coalition partners to stay in power. Both of these groups are predominantly hostile towards Israel. In addition to that, the issue of Israel within Congress Party is often a matter of an intricate balancing act; where pragmatists slug it out with an old guard still rooted in Cold-War era.

If half a century of missteps and failings of Indian foreign policy with regard to Israel are to be heaped upon the Congress Party; then the political course correction and growing India-Israel relations must be duly credited to it as well.

The burgeoning bilateral trade, defense, research and technological ties are a testament to the commitment of Congress-led governments to bolster India-Israel relations.

In geopolitics, friends are sometimes not very extrovert in their expressions. However, even hesitant and reluctant friends must be acknowledged as such, especially if they take bold steps and electoral risks. The Congress Party has proven itself as a reliable partner for Israel.

Prime Minister Rao’s achievements (1991-1996) have been downplayed and his legacy maligned – often by those within his own party; proving once again, that good deeds seldom go unpunished in Indian politics.

However, the grand consensus Prime Minister Rao forged on Israel still stands strong. The rising bilateral trade and the widening cooperation have proven his judgment right. Regardless of the composition of the new government after this year’s elections, India-Israel relations are headed to a future of stability and growth.

About the Author
Vijeta Uniyal is an Indian journalist based in Europe. He is Contributing Editor for the Commentator and Senior Distinguished Fellow at New York-based Gatestone Institute. He graduated from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and worked for more than 10 years in international organisations, including German Foreign Office, German Minister for Economics and Technology, Goethe Institute and Humboldt Foundation.