AHMEDABAD, India – When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Australia last year and visited a Jewish school in Sydney with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, their pathway into the school was lined with students cheering and waving little Australian and Israeli flags.
These were Jewish students, and the path they lined was in the school’s hallways.
On Wednesday, in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Netanyahu experienced something completely different.
This time it was not a few hundred Jewish students waving and singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” but, rather, tens of thousands of Indians who lined the 8-kilometer road from the airport to the Sabarmati Ashram, where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1930. They were dancing, singing, cheering, clapping and excitedly waving as Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s car drove past.
“Bibi, Modi, Bibi, Modi,” they chanted, waving thousands of Indian and Israeli flags.
Indians refer to this procession as a “cultural roadshow,” highlighting the colorful folk traditions and diversity of the nation. Modi has reserved this very warm gesture in his home state of Gujarat for only three leaders whom he wants to honor – China’s President Xi Jinping, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Netanyahu.
Dozens of two-story-high posters with the smiling visage of Netanyahu and Modi lined the motorcade route. Netanyahu joked with reporters afterward that he has never seen such large pictures of himself.
The two leaders drove past throngs of people on both sides of the street and past numerous bandstands set up alongside the road, where dancing groups performed folk dances. Some of these were professional dance troupes, and others were school groups.
This type of welcome – something an Israeli leader has not experienced for decades, if ever – serves a number of purposes.
First, it reflects a tremendous respect for Israel, for its technology, for standing up for itself in a tough neighborhood, for all the country has accomplished. Modi is full of this respect, and with these gestures wants that sentiment to spread throughout this massive country, where those feelings have not always been extant. Israel and India established ties only in 1992, and before that India was often openly hostile to the Jewish state.
Second, this type of demonstration is good for Modi. For his own domestic purposes, it is good for the Indian leader to be seen as a good friend of Israel, because Israel is seen in the country as a military, agricultural and technological powerhouse that embraces the future.
That is exactly how the Indian leader wants to be seen by his people as well. It is not by accident that Netanyahu has said repeatedly during his visit that Modi is a revolutionary who is “revolutionizing India.” That is the perception the Indian leader wants to convey.
As the motorcade got close to Gandhi’s ashram, from where he set out in 1930 on the Salt March, that great act of civil disobedience against the British, signs on the route appeared with a picture of India’s founding father over those of Netanyahu and Modi.
“Welcome to the land of Mahatma Gandhi,” the signs read, blissfully ignoring Gandhi’s anti-Zionism. The irony could not be starker.
Wednesday’s overwhelming show of support in Gujarat, in Gandhi’s heartland, shows just how far Indian and Israeli relations have come