An Alliance of Insecurity
When Ariel Sharon traveled to India last September, it was the first visit of an Israeli Prime Minister since the two nations achieved independence more than 55 years ago. Although his plans to commemorate Sept. 11 on Indian soil were cut short by suicide bombings back home, the trip indicated the burgeoning love affair between the two countries.
In recent years, the two nations have been sharing intelligence and cooperating over military affairs at an unprecedented level. India's second-largest arms supplier is Israel, which provided between an estimated $1.5 billion to $2 billion worth of military hardware to India in 2002. India is Israel's best customer, representing roughly half of its total sales in 2002. So it is no coincidence that ten out of thirty members of Sharon's delegation to India were executives of Israeli defense corporations. In addition, Israel has provided extensive counterterrorism training to the Indian military in the recent past. The Jerusalem Post reports that nearly 3,000 Indian soldiers were sent to Israel for training last year.
A big reason for the new-found intimacy is the Indian government's desire to solidify its friendship with the United States. Indian officials have been bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves with the pro-Israel lobby in Washington in order to work Congress and to gain access to the neoconservatives who dominate the Bush administration's foreign policy.
India's National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra first announced Sharon's visit in May at the annual dinner of the powerful American Jewish Committee. In words designed to please his hosts, Mishra extolled the "common vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity" shared by India, Israel and the United States. His speech also clearly delineated the shifting alliances created by the war of terror. The three countries, he declared, "have to jointly face the same ugly face of modern-day terrorism" and that "such an alliance would have the political will and moral authority to take bold decisions in extreme cases of terrorist provocation." The speech must have undoubtedly been effective since the committee now plans to set up a liaison office in New Delhi.
They're not alone. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) organized a conference bringing together security experts from the United States, India and Israel, in New Delhi last year, and is set to do another such conference this month in Israel.
A group of neoconservatives, drawn from rightwing pro-Likudnik outfits such as the Center for Security Policy and JINSA, are setting up a think-tank to bring India and the United States closer. According to foreign policy analyst Conn Hallinan, the move to create the U.S. -India Institute for Strategic Policy has the support of Bush administration officials like Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. Last July, the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee organized a reception on Capitol Hill together.
"The Indian community is learning very well from its colleagues within the Jewish community how to penetrate ... through the solid wall of the political processes here," Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY) told the Gannett News Service. "On the Jewish side of the equation, right now, Israel could use a billion new friends."
The courtship of Tel Aviv has already begun to yield tangible benefits. Last July, Israel and India joined together to successfully lobby the House to require the Bush administration to regularly report to Congress on Pakistan's moves to halt cross-border infiltration of militants and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. They also worked together to persuade Washington to lift its objections to Israel's plans to sell India an early-warning airborne radar system.
The clout on foreign policy is also translating into a greater willingness to influence U.S. domestic politics. Indian-American groups campaigned alongside Jewish-American organizations to defeat Rep. Cynthia McKinney in 2002 due to her supposedly pro-Pakistan and anti-Israel positions.
The U.S. government has publicly given its blessings to the India/Israel alliance. Commenting on Sharon's India visit, State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said, "(W)e're always glad when our friends make friends with each other and work together." On Jan. 12, President Bush announced plans to lift a number of restrictions on sharing technology with India, provided India strengthened controls on access to such information. And if all went well, as Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) put it on a recent visit to India, the United States could very well "make India a strategic partner, much like Israel."
This marriage of convenience against the "Islamic peril" may make intuitive sense to a layperson, but it actually represents a dramatic about-face for the Indian government. For much of its post-independence history, India has been less than friendly towards Israel, viewing it as yet another religious state like Pakistan. The Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru tended to side with the underdog in international affairs, making it a vocal opponent of apartheid and the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Additionally, Indian leaders were unwilling antagonize its own large Indian Muslim population (currently 140 million) and key oil suppliers in the Arab world.
Since the early '90s, however, successive Indian governments have moved a great distance away from the nation's original ideals of secularism, Fabian socialism and non-alignment. As part of this ideological transformation, India established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. The current ruling coalition, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), espouses a Hindu-oriented nationalism and sees a natural affinity with Israel. In their view, both countries are fighting the common enemy of Islamic terrorism funded by hostile Muslim countries. Even though there has been a dramatic thawing in India-Pakistan relations in recent months -- with peace talks scheduled for mid-February -- it has had little effect on the deepening embrace of Israel. Many on the Indian right admire Israel's willingness to be ruthless in its dealings with the Palestinians.
Apart from the superficial and short-run benefits, the downside of this realignment is considerable. Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, expressing alarm at the India-Israel defense relationship, vowed to "do whatever is required to make sure that the minimum credible balance (with India) is maintained." -- words that suggest an acceleration of an already ruinous subcontinental arms race. Pakistan test-fired a missile on Oct. 2, reportedly in reaction to the India-Israel radar deal. Arnaud de Borchgrave reports in The Washington Times that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are forging nuclear ties partly in response to Pakistan's fears about the burgeoning India-Israel alliance. Furthermore, a U.S.-India-Israel entente may also complicate India-China relations, which have improved recently.
On the domestic front, the warm welcome extended to Sharon has added to the grievances of Indian Muslims, already seething at the anti-Muslim genocide that was carried out last year in the state of Gujarat. Such an alliance could also make precarious the position of more than 3 million Indian emigrants working in the Middle East, as well as India's oil supplies.
More importantly, India's camaraderie with Israel will encourage the equation of Hindus with Jews in the minds of Muslims around the world, making India the target for global jihadi groups, as former Indian government official B. Raman has pointed out. Does India really want the world to equate the status of Kashmir with that of Palestine?
The reality is that even in purely realist terms it is unwise for India to get any closer to its newfound buddy. But try telling that to the Indian government, which seems to determined to sacrifice the nation's security to expedience and bigotry.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive magazine.