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Modi Visit: Lovefest With Israel Signals India's Final Rejection of the Raj

India's prime minister has declared independence from the limited, privileged worldview of previous leaders who adopted wholesale the British left's coldness towards Israel

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embrace during a welcome ceremony at the president's official residence in Jerusalem on July 5, 2017.
The hug that signals India's shaken off of the Raj from India’s foreign policy: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Indian PM Narendra Modi at the president's residence in Jerusalem. July 5, 2017.Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP
Nirpal Dhaliwal
Nirpal Dhaliwal

Narendra Modi's arrival in Israel marks not only an epochal moment in India-Israel relations, but also the final rejection of the psychological Raj that has hampered Indian diplomacy for so long - since independence in 1947.

While Jawarhalal Nehru, India's first prime minister, fought for freedom from Britain, he and the wider political establishment that surrounded him were very much creations of the British and inheritors of their limited thinking.

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Jawaharlal Nehru swallowed the foreign policy logic of the British bourgeois left, not least coldness to Israel': Nehru, Nasser and Tito at the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, Belgrade, Sept 1961.Credit: Wikipedia

A product of Harrow, Cambridge and London's Inner Temple, Nehru swallowed the grandstanding logic of Britain's bourgeois Left, adopting their ideas on many issues, from five-year economic plans to India's foreign policy – including, of course, a coldness towards Israel, refusing diplomatic ties with a 'colonial' state and supporting the Palestinians instead.

This same pomposity compelled him to lecture the Americans on their moral failures while simultaneously asking them to give his people the food that his own policies could not provide: a tradition continued by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who also enjoyed lecturing the world while failing to meet her population's most basic needs.

Narendra Modi, however, is a very different character. He is neither the product of privilege nor of a British education, but the barefooted son of a chai-wallah who has clawed his way to the Prime Minister's office, with a clearer and far more authentic understanding of his people's needs than any Indian leader to date. For him, the national interest will always take priority over any political fashion.

Some have remarked that this trip represents a cynical marriage of convenience between two nationalist anti-Muslim prime ministers, but any Israeli leader, not just Benjamin Netanyahu, would find a friend in Modi, who is attracted by Israel's intellectual and economic dynamism and the contribution it can make to his country, rather than any shared bigotry. Those who think this relationship is part of a wider Islamophobic menage a trois that includes Donald Trump conveniently overlook Modi's strong relationship with leaders across the Islamic world – Pakistan aside – and also with Barack Obama, who put up no resistance to Modi staging a gala for 60,000 Indian ex-pats in Central Park.

The strength of his position in the Muslim world is evidenced by the general silence from them regarding this visit. “Iran will not dictate to India who it should be friends with,” the Iranian ambassador to India respectfully acknowledged recently.

A major importer of Middle Eastern oil, with a huge ex-pat community in the region – doing $30 billion in annual trade with UAE alone – India is being wooed across the Arab world and has been visited in recent times by the leaders of Turkey, Morocco and Oman: none of them have raised the matter of India's relations with Israel.

And those who think Modi's visit is, in part, to humiliate his domestic Muslims should remember that Muslims in India are not Arabs, nor do they emulate Arabs, as Pakistanis do. They are Indians, with roots as deep in Indian history as any Hindu, and are the products of the same multicultural tolerance that is India's native tradition. Anti-Israeli sentiment has never been strong among them, as the many young Israelis who've travelled among India's 180 million Muslims can testify. That the world's second largest Islamic population is so at ease with Israel is something that should be far more widely known and advertised.

India has no native tradition of anti-Semitism; its Muslim community bears no strong antagonism to Israel: Modi lays a wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, July 4, 2017.Credit: GPO

Israel and India are compatible in so many ways. Both democracies are ancient civilizations that have endured a great deal and today stand in the world on their own terms, in full possession of the wisdom of their experiences. And, like the Jewish people, Indians are to be found all over the planet, making a success of themselves in every field of endeavor. The two peoples are exceptionally well suited to the challenges and opportunities of globalization, having a deeper tradition of productive co-existence than most others.

This understanding of the dynamics of globalization have, I think, brought the two countries closer together more than any other consideration. Just as Israel has kept itself intimately connected with its diaspora, Narendra Modi has reached out to India's thirty million-strong ex-pat community to enhance his country's engagement with the world. While being deeply rooted in their own traditions, both Indians and Israelis are extremely international in their outlook and sensibility.

"India wants the world not just to be interconnected but also that it should be sensibly run," said Angela Merkel during Modi's recent trip to Germany. And in his later meeting with Emmanuel Macron, he pledged that India would go "above and beyond" its commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Modi is committed to India responsibly taking its rightful place in an increasingly integrated world, and in Israel he sees a partner that is uniquely equipped to make that happen: a democracy that shares India's own deep cosmopolitanism and international mindset, and that seeks to capitalize on the opportunities of a fast-changing world through enterprise and innovation. Such a proudly independent program is indeed a thorough repudiation of the Raj mindset.

Nirpal Dhaliwal is a British-Indian writer whose work has appeared in India Today and its opinion site the DailyO, and across the British press. His novel, Tourism, is about the emotional and existential crises of a young Indian man raised and living in London. Twitter: @nirpaldhaliwal