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Is Narendra Modi, India’s New Prime Minister, Israel’s New Best Friend?

Controversial in the U.S., the Hindu nationalist has cultivated a close relationship with the Jewish state—and says he wants to get closer

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Narendra Modi (second from right) is garlanded as he arrives at a public rally after his victory in Vadodara on May 16, 2014. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
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Israelis who have met Narendra Modi, India’s newly elected prime minister-designate, gush about him and what he means for Israel. At a recent event at the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv, he was described in glowing terms: “outgoing”; “assertive”; “extremely, extremely clever”; and “very tachles, very direct, very Israeli.” Among the calls Modi received congratulating him on his win last week was one from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told his cabinet at their weekly meeting that Modi had replied by expressing the desire to “deepen and develop economic ties with the state of Israel.”

When Modi, the head of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, is sworn in as prime minister on Monday, he will become the only Indian premier to have ever visited the Jewish state. He has close relationships with Israeli business leaders, and his landslide victory has left many anticipating the possibility of a great leap forward in Indian-Israeli relations—and with it, a billion new customers and allies.

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Israel’s relationship with India has long been a quiet affair, with a lot going on behind the scenes, but not much happening in public. Though India voted to recognize Israel in 1950, successive governments in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s avoided public ties with Jerusalem, partly to appease India’s large Muslim minority and partly out of a desire to avoid alienating Arab allies. India didn’t establish official relations with Israel until 1992, making it the last non-Arab, non-Muslim country in the world to do so.

Despite this, commercial ties, technology sharing, space exploration, and military cooperation between the two countries have all grown vigorously in recent years. Bilateral trade has shot up from less than $200 million in 1992 to almost $4.4 billion in 2013 (not including weapons sales, which account for billions more). The growth in bilateral trade has been driven largely by precious stones and by defense spending. The exception is in Gujarat, the state where Narendra Modi has served as chief minister for the past 13 years.

In Gujarat, Israeli industry was not only welcomed by Modi but actively pursued. Huge tenders for a semiconductor plant, a new port, and a desalination plant were awarded to Israeli bidders. Israeli agriculture, pharmaceutical, alternative energy, and information technology companies have flourished there. This isn’t incidental: Modi’s campaign was based on replicating his economic success in Gujarat on a national scale, and much of that success was tied up with Israel.

Modi, now 63, was born into a family of grocers in Gujarat, then part of the larger Bombay state, and spent his childhood selling tea in bus and train stations. He studied political science and soon fell in with the Hindu Nationalist parties. A gifted politician, Modi worked his way up from handing out political booklets on the street to national secretary of the BJP and then to chief minister of Gujarat, on India’s northwest coast, one of the country’s top industrial areas.

In Gujarat, Modi emphasized privatization and small government. He opened financial and technological parks, brought in foreign investment, and cracked down on corruption. Under his administration, the state’s economy expanded by more than 10 percent annually. In 2010, in Modi’s third term in office, Forbes named Gujarat’s largest city, Ahmedabad, as the third-fastest growing city in the world.

Modi’s career was nearly derailed in 2002 when riots broke out in Ahmedabad; an estimated 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu radicals during the violence. Modi’s government was accused of not doing enough to stop the massacre, and while Modi was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Indian Supreme Court’s Special Investigation Team in 2009, he was banned from visiting the United States over his role in the violence—a circumstance that drove Modi to develop relationships with other foreign partners, particularly Israel and Japan, instead.

In 2006, Modi accepted an invitation to visit Israel for an agricultural technology conference. The five-day trip sparked an ongoing relationship; Modi began encouraging partnerships with Israeli ministries and advised his constituents to study Israeli agricultural and water-management systems. To his Israeli partners, Modi’s profile as an opponent of Muslim extremism—a perceived common enemy, particularly in the wake of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai—only made him more appealing.

Modi’s BJP has often been supportive of Israel. Though diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Jerusalem were first officially established under the dominant Congress Party in 1992, it was during the last BJP coalition government, between 1999 and 2004, that the relationship blossomed. India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, of the BJP Party, visited Israel in 2000, and in 2003 Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli leader to visit India.

According to a report in the International Business Times, Modi has suggested that he may make the first official state visit by a sitting prime minister to Israel during his term of office. His timing is impeccable: The Indian public seems especially well primed for a closer alliance with Israel as well. Surveys by the Israeli Foreign Ministry have found that Indian support for Israel is higher than in any other country polled, beating out even the United States. “Rural Indians see Israel as an agricultural superpower,” said Shimon Mercer-Wood, Southeast Asia desk officer at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Urban India sees Israel as a leader of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

In the last few months a string of cooperative anti-terror agreements was signed between the two countries; negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement are ongoing. One of the largest Indian business delegations ever to visit Israel will be attending the MIXiii conference in Tel Aviv this month. But Modi’s victory has the potential to send these efforts into overdrive.

“Modi likes Israeli Chutzpah,” said a senior member of the AgileTree investment company who has dealt personally with him in Gujarat for years and asked to remain anonymous because of continuing business operations with both major parties. “If only a fraction of what happened in Gujarat will happen in India as a whole, the state of Israel will be one of the biggest beneficiaries.”

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Is Narendra Modi, India’s New Prime Minister, Israel’s New Best Friend?

Controversial in the U.S., the Hindu nationalist has cultivated a close relationship with the Jewish state—and says he wants to get closer

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