A youthful nation and growing economic powerhouse, India has long been forging strong business relations with Israel. Those ties are expected to grow stronger following last week’s landslide election of India’s conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its leader Narendra Modi.
As chief minister of Gujarat state in western India, Modi, 63, oversaw a pro-business climate and expanded trade with Israel. In fact, according to recent reports, Gujarat signed an agreement within the last year with an Israeli company and two others to build two semiconductor fabrication plants for a total cost of some $10.4 billion. Trade between the two nations is $5 billion a year, not counting defense trade.
Modi reportedly wants to continue to improve India’s relations with Israel, which is good news for the Jewish state. It doesn’t hurt for a small nation with 8 million people to have the world’s second most populous nation in its corner. And India and Israel clearly have security interests in common, as Islamic terror threatens both countries.
But it would be a mistake for the two countries to base their relationship on an anti-Muslim platform. And we hope that doesn’t become the focus of further efforts to bring the countries closer. A large percentage of the population of both countries is Muslim – indeed, India is the second largest Muslim nation in the world after Indonesia. But defining your country as anti-Muslim doesn’t make sense, and is no way to lead a nation forward
Yet that is what India’s BJP has done, at least in some respects. The BJP has sought to identify India with the Hindu religion, and has vocally rejected the country’s secular tradition of the last 67 years. And within its pro-Hindu promotional activity, the party has vocal anti-Muslim elements. Although candidate Modi has distanced himself from his more radical party supporters, many recall the religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 that left 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslim. Then-Chief Minister Modi has been accused of looking the other way during that dark episode.
Today, incoming Prime Minister Modi is a man who promises to pull India out of its economic torpor. Clearly his message has resonated among India’s youth, its business class and millions of others who saw this election as an opportunity to change direction and leadership, with an eye toward a brighter economic future. If Modi chooses to lead as an Indian, and operates as a pro-business conservative, he will be someone with whom both Israel and the United States could work. But if the prime minister designate begins to voice and act on the dark chauvinism at his party’s heart, he should expect a much rougher ride.