Modi’s Israel Trip Continues India’s Rightward Drift
Historian and author Vijay Prashad says Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel underscores the Indian government’s shift to the right and abandonment of the Palestinian cause
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
India’s Narenda Modi is in Israel for an historic 3-day trip. Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to make the visit. India has a history of supporting Palestinian rights, but that has started to shift. India and Israel recently signed a weapons deal worth $2 billion. And though it’s common for foreign leaders visiting Israel, Modi won’t be meeting with Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas.
Vijay Prashad is a historian, author, and professor of international studies at Trinity College. Vijay, welcome.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us. So, Modi is in the midst of this trip. Talk about its significance.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s the first trip by an Indian head of government to Israel. In 2003, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli head of government, had visited India. So over the last 25 years, there’s been a gradual drift of Indian foreign policy from being firmly committed to the question of the rights of the Palestinians as part of the overall decolonization process. From that position, India has drifted to a very much more pro-Israeli position. So much so, that in this trip – the first, again, by an Indian head of government – Mr. Narendra Modi will not visit Palestine, nor will he meet with any Palestinian official.
So it is a historical visit, but it’s also a very important underscoring of the very, very imperceptible but real switch in India’s position on the Israel-Palestine issue.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay, for people who aren’t familiar with the history of the Global South, and particularly, India’s role in it, especially in relation to the Palestinian cause, can you talk about what that historic support for Palestinians has looked like, and why it started to shift?
VIJAY PRASHAD: India went into the United Nations after 1947 as a leader of the anti-colonial process. The so-called “Decolonization Committee” in the United Nations was pushed through by India. It was very important for countries like India, Indonesia, Ghana; these countries that had recently won their independence. It was very important for them to make sure that other colonized people not be left out in the cold. Which is why the United Nations, right up to the 1980s, took a very strong position against the occupation of colonized people.
Which is precisely why, in 1967 when the Israeli armies essentially occupied the [inaudible 00:03:00] areas of Palestine, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in Gaza, at that time the Global South countries or the non-aligned countries took a very strong position and pushed through U.N. Resolution 242, which called for the end of the occupation. Of course, that Resolution has not been honored. But nonetheless, the moral authority of these de-colonizing [inaudible 00:03:29] was very strong.
In the late 1980s when many of these countries began to suffer economic trials they went to the International Monetary Fund to help them. India was, of course, in the queue with other countries of the Global South. It was made very clear to India in 1990 and 91 by the United States, that any good relationship with the International Monetary Fund, or indeed with Washington, D.C., had to come at a certain price. And the price that the United States asked India to pay was to normalize relations with Israel. Which is why, in 1992, India and Israel for the first time developed open, normal relations. There had been some secret contacts before, and there’d been some secret arms agreements before. But this was the first open contact.
And why, Aaron, this is very important, is India plays a leading role in the non-aligned movement. So when India decided to drift into the Israeli camp, what worried people who continued to argue the Palestinian rights case was that this would give cover to other Global South countries to follow India. That has not happened as much as we expected. But nonetheless, this is something that people worry about.
AARON MATÉ: And how has this shift – especially under Modi signing all these weapons deals now with Israel – how has that been received inside India?
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s complicated. And the reason it’s complicated is that there was some broad consensus between the Congress Party and the BJP, particularly with regard to these weapons deals. It was after all the Congress Party in 1992 that began the process of normalization, and after the BJP government in 1998 exploded nuclear weapons, and when American arms sales became much harder to access.
You know, after all, the United States has this non-proliferation position that if you explode nuclear weapons, you cannot receive every single kind of arm. Well, Israel had no such compunction, and since Israel basically produces American weapons, it began to sell arms to India. So there’s a kind of foreign policy consensus in India around the buying of arms. So much so, that India is the largest purchaser of Israeli arms.
But there is some discontent in the country. There are hundreds of millions of people who are upset by this shift in position. But also there’s a sense of disquiet about the exaggerated nature of this relationship, and this visit in particular.
Let me give you one example. There have been a series of deals struck between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Modi. Seven different different kinds of deals; things that go from agriculture to space, et cetera. But put this in perspective. India-Israel trade is about $4 billion a year. This is one third the size of India’s trade relationship with Iran, which is the leading adversary of Israel. So there’s a lot of hype about this trip, and this hype has more to do with the kind of ideology of the right wing in India which is very much an anti-Muslim ideology. I think this is what Mr. Modi is going for much more than anything actually pragmatic having to do with trade and technology.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay, you mentioned Iran. Given Modi’s closer ties to Israel now, is it possible that Netanyahu might try to leverage that into trying to sort of weaken ties between India and Iran, given how antagonistic Netanyahu have been towards Tehran?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this has been something that the United States has been trying to do with India for now 15 years. In 2004, 2005 – in fact, when George W. Bush visited India – Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Advisor, advised the Indian government at the time not to go forward with a plan to build a natural gas pipeline from Tehran’s southern [inaudible 00:07:57] Field through Pakistan into India, which is really the most logical way to deliver natural gas to India.
So the Bush administration put a lot of pressure on India to scuttle that deal. And in place of that, what the Bush administration promised India was to bring India out of the nuclear cold. Remember, India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. It’s not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and therefore would have had a hard time creating a nuclear energy industry. So the United States said, “Don’t go for natural gas. Go for a nuclear energy industry and we’ll help you. But the price you have to pay here is you have to put pressure on Iran on the sanctions.” And indeed, India twice voted in the International Atomic Energy Agency meetings against Iran. But this didn’t stop India from continuing to break the sanctions’ regime and trade with Iran.
India continued to import energy from Iran and continued to pay for this, first through the Halk Bank in Turkey, and then later in rupees with a bilateral agreement between Iran and India. In other words, what I’m trying to say, Aaron, is even when there was immense pressure from the United States for India to break with Iran, this was very difficult.
Let’s take this not so much now from a political, a geopolitical standpoint, but let’s take it socially. Iran is the largest Shia country in the world. It might surprise people to learn that India is the second largest Shia country in the world. There is a constituency inside India which is very close to Iran. And finally, India has longstanding ties with Iran. It will be very difficult for Mr. Modi to willy-nilly break those ties.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay, on the issue of India’s Muslim population, is that part of the dynamic here, I’m wondering, between Netanyahu and Modi in terms of perhaps a shared antagonism towards Muslims? Modi is known here for the fact that he was once banned from visiting the U.S. because of his role in some riots in 2002 that left hundreds of Muslims dead. Netanyahu, of course, presides over the occupation of Palestinians, which is a majority Muslim population. Is that at all a factor in these closer ties between these two leaders?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Absolutely. Look, they talked today about their theory of terrorism; a theory which they very much share. In other words, Mr. Netanyahu’s view is that Palestinians are terrorists. He very routinely elides the word “Palestinian” into “terrorist.” He doesn’t really spend a great deal of time making distinctions.
Mr. Modi, similarly, with “Muslim” and “terrorists,” he has a very slippery relationship with these terms. And there’s a lot of pressure, for instance, in the United States to use terms like “Islamic radical extremist,” et cetera; some variant of those words. This is no problem for Mr. Netanyahu or Mr. Modi. They are both temperamentally anti-Muslim, so this certainly does unite them.
But the reason this is not the only issue is that there is this other pragmatic side, which is India’s desire – a very vulgar desire for a country which is so deeply poor – to import arms. India is the world’s largest importer of arms. And as I said, it’s the largest importer of Israeli arms. But this is a very unfortunate thing for India itself, for the Indian people. But here, there is come kind of consensus in the Indian elite. So yes, there is a unity in their anti-Muslim view. No wonder Mr. Netanyahu said today, “This is a match made in heaven.” Using the word “heaven” I think is illustrative.
AARON MATÉ: So Vijay, as you watch this shift going on where you see Modi openly embracing leaders like Netanyahu and Trump, who he recently met with just before this trip, do you see the potential in India, still, for the country to return to its more historic role of the 20th century as a key member in this sort of third world? So, are there any movements, as a member of the Global South?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, to be fair, and the Global South block is deeply weakened. It’s not what it used to be. In fact, the non-aligned movement itself is in dire straits. It had as its president Iran, then its president Venezuela, and you can see these are countries that are greatly embattled. This is not a bloc which has confidence and which has been able to provide a vision for the world’s people. It is a bloc that is greatly subsumed under the pressure of the west, and under the pressure in a sense of globalization.
But at the same time, there is a great rebalancing happening with the emergence – particularly of Russia and China – to put pressure against what we consider to be American unipolarity, or western unipolarity. So in the middle of this rebalancing, there’s no question that new powers are going to emerge, new equations are going to develop. There is no solidity in international relations.
And even if Mr. Modi, at this point, seems to believe that the direction is for great amity between India and Israel, he’s going to get some pushback from some of his other allies such as Iran, Qatar, and others will not be very happy with Modi’s full scale embrace. And these are countries with a much larger trade relationship with India, particular in energy. India is a country that is entirely reliant on important energy, and it imports it largely from the Gulf. So there will be some contradictions that Mr. Modi will not have an easy time ironing out.
AARON MATÉ: Vijay Prashad. Historian, author, and professor on international studies at Trinity College. Vijay, than you.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.