Foreign policy, like a river, flows in one direction. But rivers change courses or bend to change direction. There was a bend in the course of Indian foreign policy around 1992. The change was dictated by a complete transformation in the global configuration of power and a reorienting of economic policies in India. The global context was the collapse of the Soviet Union which meant that India was bereft of its principal axis of foreign policy. The internal situation was informed by the initiation of economic reforms and the dismantling of the socialist scaffolding of the economy. The net result of all this was the turning around of the Indian ship of state and to make it point towards the United States of America. This task was performed with extraordinary adroitness by the then prime minister, Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao. For the first time since 1947, Indian foreign policy came to be based on realism and realpolitik rather than on woolly-headed idealism and rhetoric. A burgeoning Indian-US friendship inevitably led to the opening up of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. The visit of Mr Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister — the first visit by an Israeli premier — is the logical outcome of a gestation period that began about a decade ago.
It is entirely apposite that Mr Sharon’s visit should take place when a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party is the prime minister of India. The BJP — and the Jan Sangh which was the party’s previous incarnation — has over the years been a great advocate of India’s friendship with Israel. The growing cosiness between India and Israel has also been determined by the dramatic polarization in world affairs after the events of September 11, 2001. India, especially under the leadership of the BJP, has seen itself as the target of Islamic fundamentalism and of Islamic terrorist outfits. This naturally strikes a chord in the hearts of Israeli politicians like Mr Sharon. But the ties are also based on more substantive issues like India’s buying of arms from Israel and a greater degree of cooperation on intelligence matters.
The leftist parties — the usual suspects in this regard — have already protested that the real agenda of Mr Sharon’s visit is the advancement of Israel’s arms trade with India. This is a ridiculous line of argument. Arms should be of the highest possible quality and not the inferior variety that India bought from the Soviet bloc in a bygone era. While the left rants, a greater maturity is evident in the left’s natural ally. The president of the Congress and the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Ms Sonia Gandhi, has agreed to meet Mr Sharon. Even the government of India does not see the visit of the Israeli leader as an abandonment of India’s position on Palestine. This new confidence on India’s part is based on realpolitik calculations about the benefits that Mr Sharon can derive in terms of goodwill and image from his India visit. The visit may not bring about a covenant but it is a landmark in a promising relationship.