MUMBAI – One of the reasons Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with such warmth this week is that he wants to send a message to his massive population that Israel is a friend.
Judging by a few conversations with people on the street, as well as talkbacks and letters to the newspapers, his job presently is not too difficult: Much of the population already agrees.
Aabhat Gupta, a vendor working the plaza in front of the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai, when asked if he knew who was staying in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel directly across the street, answered “Bibi Netanyahu – very good.”
Gupta, trying to convince people to let him take their picture in front of the iconic arch, spoke only broken English. The adjectives he used to describe the prime minister were, “very interesting” and “very good business mind.” The reason Israel-India ties are good, he said, is because “it helps security.”
One of his colleagues, Ankit Singh, spoke better English. He said the Israel- India relationship was important because “India needs technology to fight terrorism,” something he said Israel could provide.
Israel is a “strong country,” he said, and Netanyahu a “fine [prime minister].”
Gaurav Vern, a businessman from New Delhi visiting Mumbai, said that he did not know much about politics, but spoke very fondly of Israel. “I’ve been there twice,” he said. “There is no pollution, good weather, and the people are very friendly.”
Vern said he trust’s Modi’s instincts, and if Modi believes Israel and Netanyahu are good for India, then Modi and Netanyahu are good for Israel.
Jacob Sztokman, the head of an NGO called Gabriel Project Mumbai that works to help children from the city’s slums – and splits his time between Mumbai and Modi’in – said that Modi’s embrace of Israel and Netanyahu has had an impact.
“Overall there is a lot of support here for Modi – they see him as honest, distant from corruption,” he said.
“Therefore, if Modi makes it clear that he likes Israel and Netanyahu, and believes they can help India, that flows down to the people on the street.”
He said this is evident in talk-backs.
The Indian press has been full all week of stories about Israel and Netanyahu, and the talk-backs, Sztokman said, have been overwhelmingly positive.
THE SAME IS TRUE in letters to the editor of the country’s newspapers.
Two newspapers were randomly checked on Wednesday – The Pioneer and the Business Standard. Both of them had one letter to the editor about the Netanyahu visit, and both of those letters were positive – something that would probably not be the case even in as supportive a country as the US.
In The Pioneer, under the headline, “No looking back on India-Israel ties,” Bal Govind from Noida wrote: “Israel’s capabilities in the area of defense, research and development, trade and agriculture are well known. Moreover, the country supported India in the 1962 China War and [the 1999] Kargil War...”
The Business Standard also had just one letter that day on the Netanyahu visit, under the headline, “Forge strong relations.” Krishan Kalra, from Gurugram, wrote that, “making our agriculture more productive, optimizing our scarce water, securing our cyber space, revamping healthcare systems [and] securing our northwestern and northeastern borders are all our immediate priorities... Cooperation with Israel can help us upgrade these areas [more] swiftly than struggling all by ourselves.”
Some, moreover, like Israel not for what the country can do for India, but for who the Israelis are.
Wassin Faruk works in and is related to the owner of the Faruk Leather Store, located just outside the Chabad House in New Delhi. Specializing in leather jackets, the store is a landmark for Israeli backpackers – 95% of the store’s clientele are Israelis.
The reason Netanyahu is coming to India, he said, has to do with business deals. “Israel is bringing projects for agriculture and water, which we need badly. If you would see what people drink, you would not touch the water here.”
Asked how he would characterize Israelis, Faruk thought for a second and replied: “Crazy sweet, loving, giving – many, many things. Teaching. Noisy. Helpful.”
He emphasized “helpful.”
“I’ve seen it many times,” he said.
“I’ve seen how if some Israeli is in trouble, it doesn’t matter if they know each other or not, they will help. It doesn’t matter if it is about money or anything else – they will leave everything and help. That is what I find amazing about them.”