Last month saw the biggest electoral victory in India for 30 years. Narendra Modi, a proven state Chief Minister and the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ousted the Congress Party on the promise of major reforms to revive the Indian economy, despite controversy over his role in ethnic violence in Gujarat state in 2002. The victory and the record 66.38% voter turnout have been attributed to the “Modi effect” and widespread support for a candidate previously dismissed by many pundits.
Modi will now face huge challenges in reforming a vast and bureaucratic economy, with all signs suggesting that he will likely make his long-standing and close ties with Israel a key pillar of these efforts.
India and Israel commenced formal diplomatic relations in the 90s with bilateral trade and cultural links having developed dramatically over the past few decades. In 2000 India’s Foreign Minister, also of the BJP Party, visited Israel and in 2003 Ariel Sharon became the highest-ranking Israeli leader to visit India. There exists an active Jewish community in Mumbai and India has become an increasingly popular destination for young Israelis. Mutual trade and co-operation focused on agriculture and scientific research remain some of the most tangible and significant pillars of the India-Israel relationship, while defence trade amounts to approximately $10 billion.
Modi has played a leading role in developing these bilateral ties. He served as the Chief Minister of Gujarat for 13 years, a heavily industrialised western state into which Israel has invested billions through mutual development of solar and thermal power, pharmaceuticals, water recycling, water desalination plants and industrial research and development.
Palash Ghosh writing for the International Business Times has chronicled a number of significant bilateral achievements, including agreements for the construction of two semiconductor fabrication plants in India at a cost of $10.4 billion, as well as reports of plans for a joint Industrial Development Fund together with Gujarat. Jeff Moskowitz similarly outlines the developing relationship between Modi, Gujarat and Israel, noting the significant impact the relationship has had on the success of Gujarat:
In 2006, Modi accepted an invitation to visit Israel for an agricultural technology conference. The five-day trip sparked an ongoing relationship; Modi began encouraging partnerships with Israeli ministries and advised his constituents to study Israeli agricultural and water-management systems.
In Gujarat, Israeli industry was not only welcomed by Modi but actively pursued. Huge tenders for a semi conductor plant, a new port, and a desalination plant were awarded to Israeli bidders. Israeli agriculture, pharmaceutical, alternative energy, and information technology companies have flourished there…Modi’s campaign was based on replicating his economic success in Gujarat on a national scale, and much of that success was tied up with Israel.
In 2010, in Modi’s third term in office, Forbes named Gujarat’s largest city, Ahmedabad, as the third fastest-growing city in the world.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC), which met with Modi in 2012, has congratulated the BJP on the outcome and signalled their election victory as a significant opportunity to strengthen ties between the US and Israel. As part of the AJC’s Asia-Pacific Institute, I and some colleagues had the opportunity in 2011 to meet with Indian diplomats based in Washington along with representatives from India’s Jewish community who were engaged in strengthening ties between the two countries. It was clear even then that the already significant relationship between India and Israel was only going to grow and it appears the most recent election has signalled to many that the development of that relationship will almost certainly accelerate. As noted last week in the Huffington Post:
India under Modi will continue to strengthen its ties with Israel. The BJP generally and Modi in particular admire Israel…Modi has visited Israel twice, professing admiration for its economic and technological achievements. Look for more cooperation on economic issues and intelligence sharing on terrorism.
As recently as January 2013 Modi hosted the Israeli Ambassador Alon Ushpiz in Gujarat to discuss furthering bilateral trade. Following the election Upshiz shared his thoughts on Modi and the potential benefits of his election for Israel with the Economic Times:
Israeli companies have invested in India in energy, renewable energy, telecom, real estate, water technologies, and are focusing on setting up R&D centres or production units in India. India has also benefited from Israeli expertise and technologies in horticulture mechanization, protected cultivation, orchard and canopy management, nursery management, micro-irrigation and post-harvest management. The two countries are also currently negotiating a Free Trade Agreement.
We have a long experience of joint work with Mr Modi on complex projects, including in fields such as water and agriculture…Mutual acquaintance and trust have always been the basis for these relations with Mr Modi…This has been the hallmark of bilateral ties and it is expected to expand under the new government in Delhi.
Similar views have also been prevalent within India as the Indian Express notes:
For a variety of reasons, the BJP in the past tended to attach special importance to Israel. Criticising the Congress governments for their neglect of Israel, the BJP ideologues tended to privilege the relationship with Tel Aviv in the Middle East…There is a widespread perception today that Israel will be at the top of Modi’s diplomatic agenda. Israel is one of the few countries that Modi visited as the chief minister of Gujarat. And if he chooses to visit Israel again, he will become India’s first prime minister to do so.
The promise of stronger ties between Israel and India has not only centred around Modi but extends to his newly appointed Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. As Chair of the Indo-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group between 2006 and 2009 Swaraj rebutted critics of bilateral ties between Israel and India by asserting that Israel was a ‘reliable partner.’
Following the election in May of this year Prime Minister Netanyahu called Modi to congratulate him on his victory and told his Cabinet that both leaders had agreed to strengthen co-operation:
On Friday, I spoke with the Prime Minister-elect of India. There too there is a clear expression of the desire to deepen and develop economic ties with the State of Israel.
Beyond the promise of enhanced bilateral ties and accelerated joint economic development, there is a strong likelihood that Modi will become the first Indian Prime Minister in office to visit Israel. If the success in Gujarat is anything to go by, there is every reason to hope that an enhanced Israeli-Indian relationship will bring great benefits not only to Israel, but to the many millions living in India who are struggling to overcome dire poverty and economic underdevelopment.
– Glen Falkenstein