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India, Israel and the Jewish People

The slow but steady shift of global power to Asia has the potential to transform first China and later India – if it so wishes – into great powers within a generation. In historical terms, the speed of this global transformation is unique. Russia, England, and France required centuries to build up and defend their power status; it took the United States a century; and Germany and Japan did so in less than a century, but both risked and lost, much of their former global status.

At first glance, the Middle East would seem an appropriate region for India to gain more influence and power. Geographic proximity, growing economic interdependence, the importance of Islam in India, and the absence of negative historical baggage all bode well for India’s assuming greater power in the region. However, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions. It takes more than a growing GDP to emerge and be acknowledged as a great power in general, and more than a large Muslim minority to become a great power in the Middle East. India, once the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, has changed course since the end of the Cold War. It has asserted itself as a major Asian regional power, and is often regarded as a hegemonic power by its smaller neighbors. The 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests were largely driven by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s aspirations to establish India as a major power on the international stage. The memory of a long past when India had major economic, cultural and religious influence in Asia has shaped India’s sense of identity. However, through the 20th century India lacked a strong will to exercise power in Asia or elsewhere in the world, and still there is no consensus in India or the international arena whether India indeed has the requisite capabilities and strength to achieve great power status. But 2014 seems to have brought a change at least in India’s “will to power,” to use Nietzsche’s term. Modi, for instance in the already mentioned Operation Rahat, has taken steps to project power. In 2015, India evacuated successfully and under extremely difficult conditions about 4,000 people stranded in war-torn Yemen. Most were Indian workers, but there were also nationals from 26 other countries. Operation Rahat, as it was called, was orchestrated from Djibouti. It pooled resources from the Indian Navy, the Indian Airforce, and Air India. To Indian commentators, it was obvious that New Delhi was exercising a “hard power” skill set it was ready to deploy in crisis situations, including in the Middle East. It is likely that the decline of American influence, the assertiveness of China in Asia, and the turmoil in the Middle East have convinced Modi that India cannot not simply stand by and wait.

India’s Assets

India has the world’s second largest population and, according to projections, will overtake China as the world’s most populous nation by 2030, with more than 1.5 billion people.63 In contrast to China, which suffers from an ageing and soon shrinking workforce as a direct result of its one-child policy, India is blessed with a young, growing, and increasingly educated work force. Its dependency ratio is one of the lowest in the world, and will likely remain so for at least a generation. India’s massive territory in South Asia and its strategic geographical location along the Indian Ocean are also remarkable assets for growth and development, and for gaining power and influence beyond the regional arena. India already has overwhelming military clout in South Asia. It has succeeded in expanding and modernizing its conventional armed forces, especially naval forces – the Indian navy has the largest presence in the Indian Ocean after the United States. Politically, India’s strength lies in its unity as a nation and its vibrant, although occasionally derided, democratic system. India’s democracy has allowed much room for entrepreneurial activity and has favored the development of an extremely dynamic and innovative private sector. India’s economy is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing. It has become a premier high-tech and outsourcing hub owing to a skilled workforce with English-language proficiency. India’s well-functioning financial markets and British-based legal system, its large middle-class with growing influence, and its prosperous diaspora are all significant signs of India’s economic dynamism and potential as a global power. To this has to be added India’s cultural “soft power,” particularly in the West and to some degree also in the Middle East.

So far, India has been accepted without argument as a member of the Group of Twenty (G20) Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors and of the Financial Stability Board, two international bodies that have taken a leading role in confronting the global financial and economic crisis. In 2010, India – together with China and Brazil, among other countries – obtained enhanced voting rights in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, making it the seventh largest shareholder in the two Bretton Wood institutions. France and the United Kingdom have called for an enlargement of the G8 to include five leading emerging economies – China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. Although this recommendation has yet to be implemented, India has regularly participated in the informal G8+5 meetings held regularly in the last few years. India has also been elected to several key UN bodies – including the Human Rights Council, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and, most importantly, the Security Council. India is also one of the five “BRICS” countries. Belonging to the same league as China, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa has conferred greater status and prestige to India today than having been the nominal head of dozens of smaller African and Asian countries.

Since the 1990s, Indian leaders have bolstered the country’s standing and influence in its extended neighborhood – eastward with its “Look East” policy, and to its south throughout much of the Indian Ocean and its littoral.64 In addition, even before Modi came to power, Indian leaders had begun to show increasing attention to the areas to India’s north and west: Central Asia and the Middle East. Some analysts have suggested that India has adopted a “Look West” policy. It is likely that this region will acquire growing importance to Indian leaders as Delhi’s aspirations to global power status strengthen.

India’s liabilities

India continues to suffer from major economic and social bottlenecks, including poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and the lack or poor state of physical infrastructure – especially highways, air and maritime transport, and electricity. There are also sharp disparities in economic development levels among its various regions and states. According to provisional World Bank calculations, India’s per capita income amounted to $1,582 in 2015, considerably below China’s ($7,925) and among the lowest in the world65 India ranks only 135 in the UN Human Development Index of the 187 countries and territories included. India continues to lag significantly behind China in terms of economic development and performance. Indian growth rates since the mid-1990s, although quite impressive, have often been lower than those of China by two to four percent on average. However, growth rates for 2015 were a bit higher in India than in China. In any case, implementing needed economic reforms in India is constrained by several major factors – not the least of which are its unbridled corruption at many levels of government and sluggish bureaucracy. Additionally, India’s sustained economic growth and dynamism will continue to depend heavily on peace and stability, both domestic and regional. Unless there is an economic miracle in India or a catastrophe in China, or both concurrently, there is no chance India will catch up to China.

Beyond doubts about India’s economic capabilities, the main question marks over India’s power aspirations are diplomatic and political. India’s ability to project the image of a great power to the wider world (and the country’s willingness and capacity to help shape global policies) is not yet guaranteed. Harsh Pant, a leading Indian expert, argued before the 2014 BJP election victory that Indian leaders do not even have a consistent or long-term-oriented foreign policy or strategy: “[t]here’s an intellectual vacuum at the heart of Indian foreign policy (…) India has little to offer except some platitudinous rhetoric, which only shows the hollowness of India’s rising global stature.”66 India’s Foreign Service remains underfunded and small, as do its think tanks and university programs dealing with international affairs and foreign policy. Furthermore, India’s participation in global governance remains limited. To date, its bid to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has not succeeded. This is partly due to the key global players’ perception that India is not yet a credible great power. In addition, granting a permanent seat to India would open a Pandora’s Box, with an inevitable escalation of pressure from other major or growing powers, notably Brazil, Germany, South Africa and Japan, to also secure permanent membership on the Security Council. In 2010, President Obama’s dramatic announcement of support for India’s candidacy for a permanent seat on a potentially reconfigured UN Security Council made headlines in Indian and international media. Some thought that India’s two-year term (starting in January 2011) as a non-permanent Security Council member would be a stepping-stone to a permanent status. But this did not materialize. For many, India’s passivity showed its “distaste, and perhaps inability, to take a clear position on international issues.”67 India has generally not known how to wield its power on the international scene. There have been early signs that this may be changing in the wake of the 2014 BJP victory.

In the Middle East, India has a few specific handicaps. Unlike the United States or Russia, India cannot take great risks or make unexpected major moves as it has too many interests on all sides, including the safety of its millions of workers. It is not surprising that India made no public comment on the “Arab Spring,” in contrast to the flood of declarations that came from the West. A second, easier to address handicap is that India’s think tanks, academic centers of international relations, and strategic advisory bodies have few professional Arabists, no Hebrew speakers, and, with one major exception, no real Israel experts. India’s professional knowledge of the Middle East is far below that of the United States, China, and Israel itself.

Like China and other countries eager to accede to global power status, India will have to grapple with conflicting policy objectives. To some extent, it has already done so in carefully balancing its Middle East policy between its interests in Arab and Muslim countries and those in Israel. But it may have to confront even more daunting challenges in the future. A possible confrontation between Iran and the Arab world, both important to India, has been mentioned as one example. It is likely that India will need to demonstrate its capacity to project strength and influence in its extended neighborhood at least, if not worldwide.

In any event, the discussion of whether India will become a superpower and gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is largely irrelevant to Israel and Jewish communities worldwide. Whatever happens, India is a giant sitting at the flanks of the Arab and Muslim world. For Israel and the Jewish people, not reaching out to India would be an egregious mistake. It is simply not an option.