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Why is India’s Hindu Right Pro-Israel?

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Why is India’s Hindu Right Pro-Israel?

Hindu nationalists would like to emulate Israel. They would like to create a Hindu Israel in India.

Why is India’s Hindu Right Pro-Israel?

People hold placards and a banner in solidarity with Israel in Ahmedabad, India, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

During the premiership of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi — which has mostly coincided with the premiership, in Israel, of Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom lead right-wing, nationalist parties — ties between India and Israel have grown much closer.

This is true not only at the political level, but, more importantly, at the social level. Israelis hold a higher favorability of India than any other country in the world — 71 percent — while a 2009 survey recorded support for Israel in India at 58 percent, higher than in the United States. During the recent war in Gaza, a large number of Indian social media accounts have been amplifying a pro-Israeli narrative.

What is behind this extraordinary support of Israel in India? After all, post-independence India has traditionally taken a pro-Palestinian stance, as part of the left-leaning Congress Party’s belief in post-colonial solidarity. India did not even vote in favor of the United Nations partition plan in 1947 that led to the creation of Israel, though it did recognize Israel in 1950, before fully normalizing relations in 1992. India was also the first non-Arab state to recognize Palestinian statehood in 1988.

In retrospect, however, these decisions were not necessarily driven by national interest, but by ideology, and given the current upswing in close ties between the two countries, it is doubtful if this ideological position was held by the majority of India’s population.

Three factors explain the upsurge in pro-Israel feeling in India over the past three decades. First — and this goes beyond right-wing politics — is the empathy and solidarity felt in India toward Israel on the issue of terrorist attacks. Both countries have suffered heavily from Islamist terrorism, often sponsored by hostile foreign powers — Pakistan in India’s case and Iran in Israel’s case — and have accordingly, developed, for similar reasons, tough stances against terrorism and an emphasis on national security. Indeed, a milestone in contemporary India-Israel relations was Israel’s supplying of weapons to Indian forces fighting Pakistan during the Kargil War of 1999.

This shared security perspective has smoothened the second factor responsible for pro-Israel sentiment in India: better overall people-to-people and trade ties.

Post-Cold War, India and Israel have developed more normal relations, particularly as the political configuration in India no longer incentivizes governments going out of their way to signal solidarity with post-colonial Muslim countries, or to use the Palestinian issue to garner domestic support amongst Muslims.

As a result of this thawing, several economic and military factors have drawn India and Israel closer together. The two countries engage in robust trade and India’s defense industry has developed strong ties to Israel; India is the largest buyer of Israeli weapons, which are vital to its national security. Almost half — 42.1 percent — of Israel’s arms exports went to India since 2014. Since 2022, India has been a participant in the I2U2 group of four countries — India, Israel, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — that is aiming, among other things, to build a transport corridor linking India and Europe through Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

However, as beneficial and positive as all these developments are, they are not strictly unique, from India’s perspective, to Israel. India, after all, enjoys robust military, trade, political, and social ties with a variety of other countries, ranging from Japan to France. What really lies behind much of India’s love for Israel today is the affinity that the Hindu-right has for Israel as an ideological and political model.

In the past, many Indian nationalists, whether secular or Hindu, had some affinity for imperial Japan, a model of a well-managed, technologically efficient, ethnostate. Imperial Japan was the model for Asian nationalists, from India to China to Thailand to Indonesia, throughout the early 20th century. Japan was, after all, the first non-Western, Asian country to successfully industrialize and hold its own against the European colonial powers of the 19th century, and the purpose of nationalism is to strengthen the nation’s culture and military vis-à-vis other nations.

In contemporary India, Israel occupies such a role of emulation for Hindu nationalists, that it is often said that they seek to create a Hindu Israel in India. Israel is what they envision for India, and indeed, what nationalists throughout the world envision for their countries: a well-ordered state that stands against adversaries, modern — technologically and legally advanced — but also traditional at the same time, as well as supporting a society that gives the pride of place to its dominant cultural group and its norms, where minorities are managed.

Indeed, just as there is a gulf within the Israeli right between secular Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox, Hindu nationalists are rarely theocrats. Their goals are more aligned with shepherding India away from its constitutionally-mandated neutrality between different confessional communities toward something more akin to Israel’s Jewish state model wherein all groups have equal civic rights but the titular group has preferential treatment.

On top of this ideological convergence, Hindu nationalists see much in common with Israel and India’s specific situations. Both are countries that serve as the primary home of a religious (and some would say, ethnoreligious) group that does not have other homelands, unlike say Arab Muslims or Western Christians.

Both neighbor hostile powers, some of which seek to deprive them of land or destroy them altogether. Finally, nationalists see Jews and Hindus as being similar in that both groups had to struggle for political power for centuries before finally attaining it, in the form of their own states, during the 20th century, either through the independence of India in 1947, or the creation of Israel in 1948.

In short, a major factor in the upsurge of Indian favorability to Israel is that Israel is a contemporary example of a modern ethnostate, one that combines ancient culture with modern prosperity, technological prowess, and military success, all factors that appeal to the Hindu right. More generally, and less ideologically, Indians feel a shared sense of empathy with Israel in its struggle against terrorism, while three decades of increased economic and people-to-people ties have drawn Indian and Israeli societies closer together.