Many moons ago — in 1994 in fact, in my first book — ‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’ (Viking-Penguin), in the lead chapter, I had detailed a geopolitically ambitious security architecture for India anchored at the two ends of Asia, in the “tech savvy” Israel and the economically-muscular Japan, with India as the natural pivot able to switch forces and resources east and west, with the Southeast Asian littoral on the South China Sea that I had identified as China’s “soft underbelly” and the front where India needed to begin its pushback against China. 24 years later, that scheme is being realized, albeit fitfully. The blame for the tardiness in obtaining this geostrategic design is, however, entirely Delhi’s owing to the Indian government’s default option — which tendency first became apparent during Narasimha Rao’s tenure — of looking to America for solutions, rather than getting on with the strategic business of the country and furthering one’s interests in the most aggressive way possible by itself.
Around 2000, I had written a paper for presentation at a Conference at the University of the Negev, which event was cancelled owing to the initiation of the 2nd Palestinian intifada (2000-2005) virtually on the eve of the conference. This paper advocated a meshing of Indian and Israeli defence industries with, in broad terms, India providing the main market and part of the investment for development of high-tech armaments and miltech, and Israel its design and development skills and competencies and a transfer of its production wherewithal to manufacture conventional military bulk goods — infantry weapons, artillery, tanks etc. fully to India to meet the needs of the two countries, and for export to states in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I had argued that such a combination would result in the emergence of one of the most formidable integrated military-industrial complexes in the world, besides serving the strategic purposes of the two countries.
My advocacy of such a Combine led, around 2002 or so, to the Israeli Home Minister Uzi Landau, and the head of Mossad on a Delhi trip, visiting with me. Intrigued by my concept, Landau promised to give it serious consideration. A year later and during the trip to Delhi by Israeli PM Ariel Sharon I asked about this proposal but it hadn’t progressed much in Israeli policy circles. Fast forward another 2 decades and there’s finally the first small move in this direction with the Indian govt now insisting that Israeli companies manufacture in India 60% of what they sell to the Indian armed forces. There’s a bit of coercion here. But one would have thought Tel Aviv would have long ago recognized the merits of transitioning from a seller-buyer relationship to strategic co-production ere the Modi regime forced its hand.
What got the BJP govt to act was the dissatisfaction with a growingly transactional relationship — that I have pointed out in my previous posts — where the benefits were mostly one-way, with Delhi mainly forking out the funds and even in collaborative projects DRDO left with missile back end work, not the high-value stuff at the front end concerning the target seeker and propulsion tech on MRSAM and LRSAM projects, for instance. It is the sort of thing that I had warned wouldn’t last long.
It is in this context that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu touches down in Delhi with Modi at Palam to receive him. Hugs and genuine warmth between the two principals will make for a feel-good occasion and trip by the Israeli leader, whose delegation also packs movers and shakers of that country’s corporate world who have turned Israel into the “start-up nation” of lore, and who will be urged by their government to strike deals with their Indian counterparts and otherwise begin establishing Israeli presence on the Indian high-tech scene. This is all fine.
Except, one of the basic hurdles — other than the problems mentioned above — is the reluctance of Israeli (and other foreign) techno-entrepreneurs and investors from setting up shop in India, owing to the obstacle course of laws, rules and regulations they have still to run, and which the Modi regime has not smoothed out, including the little matter of foreign investment restrictions of 49% equity holding. Without controlling interest, no foreign company will want to have to do much with India, especially if it also involves bringing in cutting-edge technologies, Netanyahu’s and Modi’s rhetoric notwithstanding.
Military R&D is capital intensive business, India is solvent, boasts of a large market for Israeli products — but the Indian government doesn’t follow-up on commitments and promises it makes to foreign leaders. This will likely again derail whatever Modi and Netanyahu may formally decide to achieve.