Will Modi Be the Most pro-Israel PM in India’s History?

The signs are propitious for Israel. In common with some of his U.S. Tea Party peers, India’s prime minister-elect is business-friendly – not least to investors from Israel.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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A cutout bearing the image of Narendra Modi is fixed onto a road sign at an intersection in Vadodara. May 16, 2014.
A cutout bearing the image of Narendra Modi is fixed onto a road sign at an intersection in Vadodara. May 16, 2014.Credit: AFP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

In addition to all the other hopes awakened by the landslide victory of India’s Narendra Modi, there is the prospect that he will emerge as the most pro-Israel premier in India’s history. It’s an advent of enormous potential consequence.

It is a chance to bring to full fruition the common interests of Israel and India – and America. These have become ever more apparent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet communist empire and the outbreak of the Islamist war against Western democracies.

Clearly, economic policy is the headline story in the wake of the election. It dealt Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party a majority in the parliament. Modi had been chief minister of Gujarat, a province that progressives have long looked down upon as a center of trade and industry.

The election results had barely been counted when I received an email from Benyamin Korn, a director of Religious Zionists of America. He lived in India as a graduate student and is full of insights, including that Modi has a lot in common with American Tea Party favorites such as Governor Rick Perry.

Perry made Texas a boom state, producing a huge percentage of America’s new jobs via a strategy of low taxes and friendliness to business. Perry’s performance in Texas failed to land him in national office, at least last time around, but Modi has pulled off the trick. His victory could have the kind of consequences that resulted for Israel from the election in 1977 of Menachem Begin, whose right-wing coalition ended the long incumbency of Labor.

Korn notes that Modi, who is Hindu, may have been set down, at least by some, as a racist (or the Indian equivalent, anti-Muslim), low-class (in India, low-caste), anti-immigrant, anti-labor, and pro-capitalist. But how is the anti-Modi press going to explain why so many of India’s 175 million Muslims voted for Modi last week?

Reuters reports that “many of India’s Muslim voters appear to have put aside their fears and backed the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has promised to bring jobs and a revival of the economy.” It calls the extent of Muslim support for Mr. Modi “one of the most surprising outcomes of a vote where social and economic aspirations appear to have overridden other concerns.”

The significance of all this for Israel is the point Korn is pressing. He reckons that Israel could feature in Modi’s plans for the future. Most of the $5 billion in annual trade between Israel and India, Korn notes, has been confined to military technology and gemstones – “except,” he adds, “in Gujarat.”

International Business Times, which in March called Modi “Israel’s Best Friend In South Asia,” reports that “under Modi’s leadership and encouragement, Israel has poured billions of dollars of investment into Gujarat.”

So if Gujarat is to be a template for the economic resurgence that Modi means to mount for the whole of India, the signs are propitious for Israel.

What a satisfying prospect this is. As a young editor on the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal during the years when India was leading the so-called “nonaligned” movement, I covered its campaign to carve a third way between Soviet communism and American capitalism. The strategy was a tragedy for the whole Third World.

Those were the years following the fall of Free Vietnam. Soon enough, it became clear – even to the communist Chinese – that although the U.S. Congress had abandoned the military fight in Vietnam, we were winning the war of ideas over the best way to develop the emerging economies.

The entente between India and Israel that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the war on terror was, in and of itself, a satisfying development. Yet few could imagine then that it would take as dramatic a turn as it has just taken. The benefits to Israel will be not only commercial but political.

Korn notes that even before Modi’s inauguration, a major Indian trade delegation was due to arrive next week in Israel. The prime minister-elect has already vowed that he will be the first Indian premier to journey to Jerusalem.

Modi will face plenty of domestic political obstacles as he seeks to take his revolution national. If he succeeds the way he has in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party will emerge as the progressive force in the world’s most populous democracy and all eyes will be on America in 2016.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, the founding editor of The Forward and its editor from 1990 to 2000. His most recent book is “The Rise of Abraham Cahan.”

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