Hindutva stamp in Modi’s foreign policy

Print edition : July 30, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Mamallapuram, in October 2019. Photo: PTI

With U.S. President Barack Obama in New Delhi on January 25, 2015. Photo: REUTERS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy is shaped by his Hindu nationalist ideology and the RSS’ expansionist utopia and driven by his self-aggrandising megalomania.

THIS book deserves a far wider readership in India than it has received. Its scholarship is impeccable; analysis incisive and its conclusions are of great relevance to us in the situation in which we find ourselves. Most Indian books on foreign policy tend to shower fulsome praise on the hero of the day. The truth is most blistering.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy is based on Hindutva, a strong bid to win domestic support, and a calculated projection of a massive ego which deserves to be punctured before it harms the country more than it has already.

In this Modi, like his predecessors, has been helped by stooges who dominate India’s foreign policy debate. Without exception, no Minister opens his/her mouth without the ritual paean to the celestial Prime Minister. Two of the leading English dailies of the country have “experts in residence” whose job it is to praise the foreign policy of the day.

In the last three decades their script could well have been written in the United States Embassy in New Delhi. It is occasionally spiced with attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru.

In truth, in Nehru’s foreign policy, the element of cynical opportunism was far more pronounced than his critics, Indian and Western, allow. This magazine published a well-researched piece by an Indian academic revealing Nehru’s secret bid to forge an alliance with the U.S. India’s Ambassador to that country was kept in the dark “An elusive military relationship”, by M.S. Venkataramani in two parts in issues dated April 9 and April 23, 1999).

Nehru had scant respect for his dear old friend, Asaf Ali. The bond was depleted over the years. Never mind, you cannot refuse a job to a dear friend even if he is a wastrel. The chosen emissary was the Military Attaché, another personal favourite, B.M. Kaul. His prominence increased over the years; so did the havoc he was able to inflict on the national interest. The Secretary-General in the Ministry of External Affairs, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, was in the know. Lesser men came after him.

In any case, no careful student of India’s foreign policy can ignore Nehru’s public support to the Brussels Pact (1948) or his sharp criticism of Soviet “expansionism” in his famous interview with C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times. Non-alignment implied no more than independence in the shaping of foreign policy unshackled by ideological preferences and based on his understanding of the national interest.

The author of the book under review is Ian Hall, Professor of International Relations at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia. We have not yet acknowledged the considerable debt we owe to Australian studies on India, especially on Partition—to R.J. Moore and Ian Copland. There are some good writings on Kashmir and the boundary dispute with China as well.

To Modi, foreign policy is not a mere necessary adjunct that his job demands. It is a major element in his ideological and personal advancement. In both, good taste goes by the board. You do not put heavy chairs on the lawn fit for an elegant drawing room. Much lighter fare is called for.

The author singles out the embraces Modi “inflicted” (his apt word) on foreign leaders, Archives will reveal when they are opened what they thought of him. The point is that as his speeches, especially in Gujarat, show, Modi is a coarse person pitchforked into a high place where he feels himself free to play his games, what with an impotent opposition terrified at the prospect of losing the Hindu majority vote.

Modi’s ‘new India’

The Hindutva vision became sharper after 1989. The author writes, “When Narendra Modi came to power at the head of a resurgent BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in May 2014, that vision returned to the fore. Before and after becoming Prime Minister, Modi himself made no secret of his disdain for Nehru’s idea of India and the political legacy of the postcolonial Congress Party. He offered a ‘New India’ in its place, one grounded on different principles to those of Nehru and his allies, who pursued secularism and socialism at home, and non-alignment and activism abroad. He claimed a ‘mandate for change’ and for a transformation of ‘mindsets’ not just in domestic policy, but also in India’s international relations.”

It facilitated the recrafting of his image—here emerges a statesman of world renown. This helped in the consolidation of his personal power. The opposition was speechless. He became a rock star in “Howdy Modi”, with no small help from the Ministry of External Affairs.

The much-advertised summit with President Xi Jinping of China in October 2019 came to nothing. No Indian Prime Minister dares to come to grips with the boundary dispute and try to settle the dispute once and for all. But the meetings had a different purpose.

The author says: “Soon after his swearing-in, Modi also embarked on a series of high-profile foreign visits, each symbolic, and all carefully stage-managed. In keeping with the notion of ‘neighbourhood first’ and resetting relations with other South Asian states, he went first to Bhutan, in mid-June, 2014, and sent his External Affairs Minister to Bangladesh. He roamed more widely in the second half of the year, heading to Brazil, Japan, the U.S., Australia.” What will be India’s plight when the U.S. and China kiss and make up? Japan’s “Shoku” of 1971?

Modi went to Fiji and also undertook a series of visits closer home, to Nepal (twice) and to Myanmar. He attended four major multilateral meetings: the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit, the East Asia Summit, the G20, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. “Throughout, Modi put on an elaborate show. In Australia and the U.S., alongside his formal diplomatic commitments, there were major public events, complete with music and dancing, that allowed Modi to mingle with members of the Indian diaspora, to thank them for their support during the election campaign and to bask in their approval, which they delivered with alacrity. At both the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Madison Square Gardens the attendees chanted Modi’s name. That was the purpose of the seven visits.” This was applauded by what Ravish Kumar calls the “godi media”. In this gaudy process fall the “bear hug” inflicted on Barack Obama when he landed in New Delhi and the gatecrashing on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday celebrations in Rawalpindi.

The Jana Sangh always sought an alliance with the U.S. and distrusted China. Those feelings became more intense over the years. Even before he became Prime Minister in 2014, Modi certified that China was “expansionist”. The country’s relations with China were fairly normal then.

India confidently practises what George F. Kennan called the “megaphone” diplomacy. Why not shift the External Publicity Division to South Block from Shastri Bhavan so that its head and the “official spokesman” can be given some rest? The book contains a concise, accurate, description of the evolution of India’s foreign policy in the period between 2014 and 2019, especially the fall into America’s embrace.

Even in Nehru’s time, India sought to establish a Monroe doctrine for South Asia. Nehru failed in this. An academic willing to serve any who cared to hire him propounded the Indian Doctrine and the Gujral Doctrine. I.K. Gujral sought to inflict on Nepal when it was in dire straits an agreement worse than the Treaty of 1950. On Pakistan, Gujral was a hardliner masquerading as a dove. Pakistanis were not fooled. India aspires to be called “brother” by the Big Powers and “Uncle” by its South Asian neighbours, most of whom have bitter memories of the past.

Hindu nationalism as alternative

China’s academics never fail to stress that India is a regional power while China is a global power. No Indian statesman has ever realised that the road to greatness lies through real rapprochement with its South Asian neighbours. The author holds: “I posit that Modi’s track record in foreign policy between 2014 and 2019 did not merely involve injecting energy into Indian diplomacy and shedding inherited ideological baggage in favour of mere pragmatism, as many argue. Modi and his allies tried to go further than that. In foreign policy as in domestic policy, I argue, Modi sought to be a ‘transformational leader’, not simply a ‘transactional’ one. He aimed at more than merely delivering the spoils of government to his backers, instead seeking a broader transformation of Indian society—and, I argue, India’s international relations—underpinned by an ideologically inspired ‘vision’ Modi sought to reinvent Indian foreign policy by replacing an older vision with a new approach grounded not in pragmatism or even realism, but in Hindu nationalist ideology.”

Modi’s drive to control the bureaucracy did not spare India’s Foreign Service, demoralised as it was over the years.

“This book argues that as part of Modi’s wider project of building a ‘New India’, his government attempted to reground key elements of Indian foreign policy in Hindu nationalist ideology, to recast the language of international relations in its distinctive idiom, and redirect Indian diplomacy in ways that better fitted its political agenda. From May 2014 onwards— indeed, from the early hours of his government—I contend that Modi and his political allies made a deliberate and concerted effort to displace inherited understandings of India’s place in the world and how it ought to operate. In their stead, as new groundings for policy-making, they tried to put alternative ways of thinking derived in large part from the Hindu nationalist tradition. They did this, I suggest, partly because they believed that these alternatives would produce superior policies and better serve India’s national interests, but also because they believed that public perceptions of success in foreign policy would boost and sustain Modi’s position as a leader, consolidate his dominant position in government and produce payoffs at the polls. His reinvention of foreign policy was in part an attempt to improve his standing in domestic politics, and that of the BJP, an intriguing move to make, given generally low levels of knowledge about, and interest in, international relations in the Indian electorate.” (Emphasis added.)

Ignorance has not spared the so-called elite either, including some sections of the Ministry of External Affairs. Some of them were Hindutva-oriented before Modi appeared on the scene - including at least two former Foreign Secretaries. This suits Modi eminently as he pursues what Professor Hall calls a “Hindu nationalist ideology” in foreign policy.

RSS’ dream of Akhand Bharat

The book is rich in insights into the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) satraps, especially on the nuances of Deendayal Upadhyaya’s “Integral Humanism” as also on Modi’s cultivation of big business since his Gujarat days:

“But the summits also allowed Modi to share a stage and to build relationships with key figures in the Gujarati and national business community, including Gautam Adani, who runs a major multinational conglomerate, Mukesh Ambani, head of the industrial giant Reliance, and C.K. Birla, chair of his eponymous group. Initiating and sustaining these ties with the promises that he would fast-track approvals, cut red tape, and remove bureaucratic obstacles, he determined, was crucial to developing the state. Modi’s reputation as a business-friendly politician grew as a result, allowing him to bring major projects to Gujarat.

“Perhaps the best known of these—partly because he made much of the story during the 2014 campaign—was the investment by the Tata Group in a manufacturing plant to build the budget Nano car. After the company’s application to build the plant in West Bengal was rejected, Modi supposedly convinced its boss, Ratan Tata, to bring his business across the country to Gujarat with a one-word text message that read ‘Welcome’.”

The roots go far deeper. Ravish Kumar of the Hindi NDTV, that rare dissenter, unfailingly and rightly ridicules the RSS’ goal of India as a Vishwa Guru. Modi believes strongly in the use of extravaganza to burnish his credentials.

Early in the day, he held a Sufi conclave with some participants whose Sufi credentials were not very obvious. It was drummed up by official agencies. But Modi has yet to wear the cap Muslims wear.

The author writes: “On 11 March 2016, less than two years after he became PM, Modi took the stage to address a huge gathering held on the flood plain of the Yamuna River, southeast of Delhi. The event at which he spoke—the World Culture Festival—was apparently attended by as many as three and a half million people and watched by a similar number on television and the Internet. It was organised by a group called the Art of Living Foundation, led by the spiritual guru and self-styled humanitarian Sri Ravi Shankar. It was no ordinary gathering of followers or faithful. The Modi government was a prominent sponsor, contributing some 2.25 crore rupees (22.5 million rupees or about $370,000) towards the cost of staging the event (Jain, 2016). Some one thousand religious leaders and 750 ‘key’ politicians also took part, according to the organisers (Art of Living, 2018). Apart from Modi, former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the Pakistani senator and sometime ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman— you name them.”

Modi’s hero is Swami Vivekananda, whom he praised on Independence Day 2014. He said, quoting Vivekananda: “‘I can see before my eyes Mother India awakening once again. My Mother India would be seated as the World Guru. Every Indian would render service towards welfare of humanity...’ [...] Friends, the words of Vivekananda ji can never be untrue. The words of Vivekananda ji, his dream of seeing India ensconced as World Guru, his vision, it is incumbent upon us to realise that dream. This capable country, blessed with natural bounty, this country of youth can do much for the world in the coming days.”

All this cannot fail to endear him to his political mentor and benefactor, the RSS boss Mohan Bhagwat as he watches warily the rise of the dreaded personality cult.

But they suit each other. Bhagwat has an RSS regime in power. Modi has the support of the RSS’ ideology that Bangladesh and Pakistan will one day merge back with India to restore what some Hindu nationalists term Akhand Bharat (“undivided India”)—the greater India ruled by the British that they think forms a cultural unit. “Although a long-standing aspiration of Hindu nationalists, such suggestions were seen as unhelpful to bilateral relations with those two states.”

But that is very much his ‘RSS’ dream, which includes Afghanistan as well. Think tanks generate the steam for Modi.

New think tanks

The Hindu nationalist movement has created or strengthened a series of think tanks, as such institutions proliferate across New Delhi and further afield.

Long-established institutions like the Indian Council for World Affairs (founded in 1943) or the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (1965) now compete with a growing number of new organisations like Observer Research Foundation (founded in 1990 with funds from the Ambani family’s conglomerate, Reliance Industries) or Brookings India (founded in 2011 with donations from a range of sources within the country).

And within this increasingly complex ecosystem a number of think tanks aligned with the Sangh have also appeared, including the BJP-affiliated Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (SPMRF) named after one of the founders of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh; the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF, created in 2009), which has more convoluted ties; and the India Foundation (IF, created in 2011).

“Of these, the VIF and IF are arguably the most important in terms of foreign policy and international engagement, though they differ in form. Run until the 2014 election by Modi’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, the VIF is clearly the most active in terms of research, with a relatively large team of about twenty working in a wide range of areas and a regular output of discussion papers and policy briefs. It also holds regular and high-profile events, including the Hindu Buddhist Samvad. The IF, by contrast, is smaller and its researchers comparatively junior, though it does publish its own bimonthly journal. But the IF is widely considered, as the highly regarded Hindustan Times journalist Prashant Jha put it early in Modi’s term, as ‘the country's most powerful think-tank’ (Jha, 2015). Its board is dominated by leading BJP politicians, including Nirmala Sitharaman, who served as Commerce Minister and then Defence Minister under Modi. The organisation is led in tandem by Ajit Doval’s son, Shaurya, and Ram Madhav. As Jha points out, the IF was responsible for running the annual India Ideas Conclave, held mostly in Goa, and another Hindu-Buddhist dialogue forum (the annual Dharma-Dhamma event, first held in 2014) and major conferences on counter-terrorism and the economy (Jha, 2015.)”

Modi seeks to impose Hindutva on India. His foreign policy is crafted to that end.