In Kolkata, India on Saturday, the Gaza conflict brought 20,000 people to the streets for a massive demonstration — in support of Israel. This was a remarkable display in a city that has always been a leftist bastion. It reinforces a rather counterintuitive conclusion that I have come to recently: India, the country with the second-largest Muslim population in the world, a country with more Muslims than Egypt and Iran combined, a country whose government has consistently sided against Israel over the past six and a half decades … has more supporters of Israel than any other country in the world. More than the United States. More than Israel.
By “supporters” of Israel, I mean people who generally have more sympathy for Israel than for her enemies. Since I’m speaking in terms of absolute numbers rather than percentages, my confidence in my thesis is bolstered by India’s sheer size: over 1.2 billion people strong. And there’s even evidence that the percentage of people with a favorable view of Israel is higher in India than in any other major country, including the U.S. Affinity for Israel is strongest among core supporters of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won over 171 million votes in this year’s election.
Sadanand Dhume wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently about the emerging “India-Israel axis.” (The term “axis” might be too tempting a target for lefties, who mindlessly use the “Nazi” epithet against Israel — and the BJP.) Dhume makes a compelling case for why a “burgeoning strategic partnership with Israel matters more to India than reflexive solidarity with the Palestinian cause.” Dhume observes that “[m]any ordinary Indians instinctively grasp the natural confluence of interests with Israel,” citing, among other things, how both democracies are on the front lines against Islamist terrorism.
Sushma Swaraj, Modi’s Minister of External Affairs, got high marks from many Indians on Twitter last month when she stood firm against an anti-Israel resolution in parliament. A few days later, however, another anti-Israel resolution came up before the UN Human Rights Council. This time, India supported the resolution. Given the strong stance the Modi government had taken in its own parliament just a few days earlier, it was somewhat surprising that India didn’t at least abstain from the UN resolution. What was really surprising, however, at least to me, was the outpouring of anger at Modi from his own base in reaction to the vote. Prominent pro-Modi journalist Kanchan Gupta tweeted: “As an Indian I oppose and reject the vote and #IamWithIsrael.” Another prominent journalist and Modi supporter, Rupa Subramanya, called the vote “shameful.” Their sentiments were echoed by many average Indians.
Barely two months earlier, these same people helped sweep Modi into office in an epic landslide. I was taken aback at how some of his followers so quickly turned angry at him — over failing to stand up for Israel, of all things.
In retrospect, I think I understand why Modi’s supporters were so disappointed. After 67 years of mostly on-again, occasionally off-again rule by the Congress party, India this year voted resoundingly for change. Congress, dominated since independence by the “dynasty” founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was seen by Modi partisans as corrupt, cynical, hypocritical, and divisive.
Modi’s win was a rejection not only of the Nehru Dynasty but of the colonial British, who had tried to teach Hindus to be ashamed of their culture. Since Hinduism was India’s dominant religion, the British believed that undermining their cultural self-confidence was key to the colonialists’ ability to control a much larger population. They also controlled India through divide-and-rule tactics, constantly pitting India’s many linguistic, ethnic and religious groups against one another.
Modi backers saw the Nehru Dynasty as an extension of British divide-and-rule. The Congress party was seen as constantly pandering to various minority groups and promoting ethnic resentment, all in a cynical attempt to hold power with British colonial tactics. Critics saw Congress leaders as elitists who were still trying to please their former colonial masters, as if pining for an absent father. Hindu elites, in particular, obliged the ghosts of British Viceroys past by refusing to defend their heritage.
Modi, on the other hand, believes that Hinduism deserves to be defended. Hinduism is an ancient, highly evolved philosophy which recognizes a variety of paths to divinity; it is thus the antithesis of “my way or the highway” (or, as is becoming alarmingly common again, “my way or death”). That is why Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, and others have been able to flourish in India. More Muslims choose to live in India than in neighboring Pakistan, which was carved out of India to allow Muslims to live under Muslim rule. The Hindu population of Pakistan, on the other hand, in spite of Hinduism’s deep roots there, has been diminished to a rounding error.
To many, the UN vote against Israel appeared to be a regression back to Congress’s way of doing things: subordinating the national interest in order to pander to the Muslim voting bloc. Fairly or not, it caused some to wonder whether they were really going to get the change they had fought so hard for.
Many Indians admire the cultural self-assurance of Israeli Jews, and their willingness to fight to defend Israel and Judaism. Many Hindus are now recovering their own cultural self-assurance, cleansing their DNA of the apologetic reflex that the British had tried to instill in them. They want to fight to defend Hinduism, which has had to contend for centuries with Muslim invaders who have practiced conversion by the sword, and Christian missionaries who, at times, have proselytized in a manner openly disrespectful to Hinduism. These Hindus want justice for the Kashmiri Pandits, the Hindu community that has been ethnically cleansed from their ancient homeland in Northern India by Pakistani-sponsored Islamist terrorism. Many Hindus wonder why India should support the Palestinians, when the Palestinians always side with the Pandits’ Islamist oppressors. Many Modi supporters see India as a necessary refuge for Hinduism, and empathize with the Jews’ need to defend, in Israel, the world’s refuge for Judaism.
There is a great point of compatibility between Hindus and Jews: Neither group seeks converts, and both find themselves outnumbered — and often besieged — by those that do. There are other commonalities as well. For example, while Jews don’t win as many spelling bees as Hindus, both groups revere education. The flip side is that Hindus and Jews each have a group of overeducated leftists who appear to be ashamed of who they are, and, through their chronic and conspicuous self-flagellation, seem eager to please people who despise them. Perhaps that’s a self-destructive mutation of the survival instinct that both groups developed through millennia of persecution.
One person who is not afflicted with such a mutation is Dr. Subramanian Swamy, a renowned economist and former cabinet minister who unabashedly promotes Hindu cultural values. Speaking at an India-Israel solidarity conference in Mumbai shortly after the UN vote, Swamy declared: “[T]he people of India support Israel no matter what the government of India did.” His packed, youthful audience responded with an enthusiastic roar. Take note, Israel, and know who your friends are.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.