Some skeptics question whether India’s policy shift vis-à-vis Israel will endure in the long term. They point to the rapid growth of India’s Muslim minority, and to India’s enormous economic links with the Muslim Middle East. They also note Indian reports of disappointment with Modi’s government because his promised reforms have not all materialized as fast as expected. Could Modi’s shit towards Israel turn out to be a temporary, short-lived interruption of India’s pursuit of its broader national interests?
The question whether history is determined by the decisions of great leaders or by deeper, long-term socio-economic forces has preoccupied historians since Karl Marx. A couple of often-quoted phrases Marx wrote in 1851/52 have had a deep and lasting impact on historiography:
“Men make their own history, but they don’t make it freely, not under conditions that they choose themselves, but under conditions which they found, which were given and transmitted. The tradition of all the dead generations burdens the brain of the living like a nightmare…”3
The issue raised by Marx is particularly relevant to Jewish history. The actions of national and foreign leaders have determined Jewish history no less and arguably more than socio-economic forces or traditions of “dead generations.” When President Truman recognized the State of Israel a few minutes after its creation in 1948, a recognition that was critical for Israel’s survival, he was driven by deep personal convictions. He swam against the stream. He ignored the arguments of his cabinet members who were convinced that the “given conditions” as Marx wrote, that is, the Near Eastern balance of power would condemn this little, isolated Jewish state to rapid extinction.
How about Modi? Has he transformed India’s Israel policy out of personal volition alone, or does he represent deeper, lasting changes in Indian society and an acute assessment of India’s long-term trajectory and interests? The answer is: both. It is true that Modi sympathized with Israel before taking office, but it took a major generational and social change to explain his victory. India’s young, its professionals and its growing middle class, mostly Hindus, voted for him. They ignored the admonitions of the ruling Congress Party and some of the elites that voting for Modi would be anti-Muslim. Under Congress Party rule, it was assumed the leader of India could not be a friend of Israel for fear of offending India’s Muslims. Modi’s victory dented this old taboo and eroded the political deterrence power of India’s Muslims in regard to Israel. Modi’s new Israel policy is part of a broader reorientation and reassessment of India’s foreign and domestic policies. In this sense, 2014 was comparable to 1992 when India established diplomatic relations with Israel. Then, many saw this only as India’s reaction to the demise of the anti-Israeli Soviet Union and the rise of the pro-Israeli United States, but it was also part of a much broader intellectual and political upheaval — “A Million Mutinies Now” as the Indian Nobel laureate and novelist Naipaul called this period.4 This too, suggests that India’s Israel policies will not be reversed quickly.