Indian prime minister Nahendra Modi won a resounding victory in national elections held this past spring, with his coalition gaining a majority of the seats in India’s lower house.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, faces the voters this coming Sept. 17, following an inconclusive election last April, when he failed to form a governing coalition.
The two have much in common ideologically. Both men are nationalists and therefore political allies, as the ties between their two countries grow.
Israel governs the overwhelmingly Muslim Palestinian West Bank, while India has just abolished the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state, its only Muslim-majority entity. The disputed territory has sparked wars between India and Pakistan.
Less than 30 years ago, the very thought of a prominent Indian openly admiring Israel would have been unthinkable.
India recognized Israel in 1950, but kept its diplomatic relations restricted to a single consular office in Mumbai. In 1975, India became the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with a PLO office set up in Delhi.
All of this was due to the ruling Congress Party’s left-wing secularism, which viewed Zionism as a form of ethnic nationalism.
But things are different now, with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power.
Since Modi became India’s leader five years ago, Delhi’s diplomatic policies have shifted dramatically in Israel’s favor.
Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. In July 2017 he and Netanyahu signed cooperative deals on water, space technology, and agriculture.
But the biggest and most significant deals have centered on defence. Israel’s specialization in high-tech weaponry, from drones to guided missiles, have transformed the Jewish state into a desirable international partner.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2014 to 2018 India accounted for 46 per cent of all Israeli weapons sales, not including small arms. In 2018, Reuters reported that India buys around one billion dollars in weapons from Israel every year.
And it’s not just a question of weaponry: police and soldiers from around India have trained in Israel or have been trained by Israeli soldiers in Delhi.
Ideological affinities fuel this partnership. India’s Hindu nationalist right wing takes inspiration from Netanyahu’s hardline Zionism. Both Modi and Netanyahu have campaigned domestically with great success as opponents of “Muslim extremism,” in the one case in Kashmir, in the other in the Palestinian territories.
The BJP is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological and cultural crucible of Hindu nationalism.
Their defining text is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s 1923 book, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, which defines the Indian nation as necessarily belonging to a “Hindu race.”
Savarkar saw a parallel in the Jewish story, and expressed his support for Zionism, writing that “if the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized” it would “gladden us almost as much as our Jewish friends.”
When Netanyahu greeted Modi in 2017, he proclaimed that the relationship between India and Israel is “so natural that we could ask what took so long for to blossom.”
Given the perceived threat both face from their immediate neighbours, that is bound to grow.