Ignore the jibes, Modi embracing Bibi is good for India
Not unexpectedly there are a few snide asides about the overt display of Netanyahu – Modi bonhomie – besides Rahul Gandhi’s “hugplomacy” jibe, which many did not quite appreciate. Some may even say it was a surfeit of public ‘bromance’ erring on the side of excess. Optics are paramount in diplomacy and this was, perhaps, necessary both for domestic and international consumption.
Talking first of the audience at home, for the vast majority of Indians, Israel was at best a hazy concept till recently. In contrast, Arafat with his chequered headgear (in more senses than one) had given a face to Palestine and from his hugs (yes, hugs) and kisses to receiving Indian leaders. He was made to appear a friend, unfairly bullied by America’s love child in the West Bank of river Jordan, who India was morally bound to side with.
At the risk of simplistic generalisation, Israel’s image in the mind of the common Indian was largely derived from Shakespearean stereotypes and Bible history classes in school. Very little was known about the giant strides Israel had made in science and technology. One had, of course, heard about its military prowess and the Israeli secret service Mossad. But, the defining image of Israel etched popular memory was of Operation Entebbe.
For years, Israel has been assiduously cultivating sections the Indian media. But, in the then prevailing political environment at home it was nearly taboo to write about Israel, like an extra marital liaison everyone knew about but were shy to talk of. The reciprocal visits of Modi to Israel and Netanyahu to India has finally taken the veil off the relationship. But, the Modi-Netanyahu tango in full public view is not just about coming out of the closet as it were but a very strong signalling to the world.
Modi realised the potential of India – Israel relationship long ago. Even as Chief Minister he had visited Israel and Gujarat was one of the first states to go for Israeli technology in agriculture, irrigation and water management. Gujarati farmers have been visiting Israel for many years now to learn about agricultural techniques and Israel set up quite a few Centres of Excellence in Gujarat.
Almost certainly, Narendra Modi has been in touch with Netanyahu since the time Modi became Prime Minister directly at common for a where they met and, certainly, through back channels. It was just a matter of time before Narendra Modi and Netanyahu went public with their friendship. It would have not only required considerable work to prepare the ground and set the mood in both countries but also managing the environment – especially the Arab countries and Palestine in particular.
That the visit was in the works was known from the time the former President, Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in 2015 but what people did not probably anticipate is Modi will de-hyphenate the relationship from Palestine and have a stand-alone trip to Israel. And, oh boy, what a reception did he get from Netanyahu for doing that.
At home, ignoring the Communists from whom one could expect no better than their old anti-US scripted line, the Congress was caught on the back-foot choosing to look the other way. Arguing counterfactually it is conceivable that in Modi’s place an UPA Prime Minister may have also cozied up to Israel. But, whether it would have had the same verve and chemistry is debatable.
In a world – where foreign policy is guided by self-interest and pragmatism, in contrast to the romantic era of non-alignment or the cold compulsions of a bi-polar world, an enemy’s friend is not necessarily an enemy. This is a fact that is now being accepted as much in personal life as in diplomacy. Mature countries and individuals accept it is ok for someone to have an independent relationship between two warring parties.
India and Pakistan have long learnt to live with that vis-à-vis the US and China. A Yasser Arafat may have been emotional about it but not his successors if handled with sensitivity. With sustained period of low oil prices, the Arabs too have a much more realistic view of the world than in the earlier decades. Therefore, this was the moment for Modi-Netanyahu to seize.
One of Congress’ new found friend from the BJP old-guard clique, snidely remarked, what could India hope to get from a country that is as large as Mumbai and half its population. Luckily neither the citizens of India’s Maximum City nor Bollywood share his world view as was evident from Netanyahu’s visit to the megapolis yesterday. But, what people of his ilk do not get is that in a hyper-connected world without boundaries – size no longer matters. This is where Narendra Modi is light years ahead on the curve from those caught in a time warp.
What makes the Netanyahu – Modi alliance rock, to use a popular expression, is their common worldview. Both of them realise, the next wave will be digital where technology and innovation will be the primary disruptors. They understand instead of playing catch up with the industrial world, the new powers will have to leap frog with start-ups. They know people respect the powerful – hence, the need to build defence capabilities. In a world that is being destabilised by terrorism – counter-intelligence will be the key to survival. Above all, as new age leaders both of them understand the value of personal influence and networking in an inter-connected world where power equations are rapidly changing.
Both leaders have the courage to walk the talk. Both understand the values and traditions of their land and people and have a vision for their countries. They have the maturity to understand each other’s compulsions. So Netanyahu is not miffed at India not voting in the UN for Israel shifting its capital to Jerusalem or get upset about Modi’s coming visit to Palestine. Equally, India will not have a major issue with Israel having independent relationship with China and may even use it to our advantage.
This is what makes Narendra Modi’s Israel gambit one of the boldest and disruptive foreign policy move he has made yet. Surely, it will cause a lot of heartburn at home and abroad. But, there is no stopping the natural course of history or an idea for which the time has come. The opposition in India cannot cling to old bogeys because the young generation is not willing to sacrifice the present and future for anachronistic considerations.