Hindutva in foreign policy


Anita Inder Singh

Has Narendra Modi’s ideologically inspired foreign policy between 2014 and 2019 been more of a domestic vote winner than a carefully crafted diplomatic strategy that has enhanced India’s world role as a force for peace, stability and regional and global prosperity? This important question is raised by Ian Hall,   Professor of International Relations at Griffith University, Australia, in his timely book on Modi’s foreign policy.  For instance, the Pulwama terrorist attack before  the 2019 elections  worsened relations with Pakistan and probably won Modi more votes in the 2019 general election. But did India’s heated response improve its  regional or global image?

First and foremost,  Mr Hall  should correct a serious copy-editing mistake in the Preface so that it does not reappear in subsequent editions of his book. He refers to ‘India’s Congress-led government of Rahul  Gandhi, Nehru’s grandson….’ (p. xii). Presumably he means Rajiv Gandhi.

Modi’s BJP-RSS combine strongly dislikes   Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideal of secular democratic nationalism. The two intertwined parties have since long condemned it as a foreign idea and wanted their version of Hindu nationalism to define independent India. They opposed Nehru’s “foreign”  ideas of official  non-interference in religious affairs and of the equality of  all religions.

Hindutva appeals to many Hindus, since it offers the prospect of India becoming a world power defined by the Hindu nationalist  version of Hindu philosophy.  Hindu nationalism  has inspired Modi’s domestic and  foreign policies and shaped Modi’s approaches to  foreign countries.  But the Hindu nationalist  concepts  through  which he  outlines  India’s global   role  are unfamiliar to foreign countries. So is the Hindi-Sanskritic nationalist vocabulary  used by Modi, including Sanskriti Evam sabhyata, (cultural and civilisational dialogue),  shanti (peace ), samman  (dignity)  etc.

Sections of the Hindu diaspora – especially in the US –  may support Modi’s version of Hindu nationalism.  But  how many foreign governments do? Mr  Hall could have questioned  the extent to which  diasporas improve bilateral ties. The Chinese diaspora in the US is larger than the Indian one. Has this translated into good Sino-US ties? Not in the context of  President’s Trump’s trade war against China. Will the Indian diaspora in the US really improve  Indo-US ties, especially on trade and strategic issues? Surely  national interests decide the nature of bilateral  relations?

Modi’s many  foreign trips have enhanced his domestic image more than his international one. He has done little  to change the course of foreign policy. The  border disputes with Pakistan and China remain festering sores. Unequal trading ties are, their different ways, bones of contention with both authoritarian, territorially expansionist China and the friendly, democratic US.   And since the book went to press, so is  the revocation of Article 370 on Kashmir.

Modi has steered India closer to the US, but strong differences over trade and New Delhi’s  wish to buy Russia’s S-400 missile remain. Interoperability  is the ultimate necessary condition  of America’s arms sales to countries. Indian arms purchases from Russia collide with this condition.  As for Russia, Mr Hall could have said that the  Russia-China tie challenges   Modi’s belief that Moscow  is New Delhi’s  ‘trustworthy partner’. That same Russian friend first sold the S-400 to China in 2015 and will export missile-building knowhow to help China strengthen its defence capability.  The book makes clear that bilateral ties should be seen against the wider background of multilateral interests of countries – though  Mr Hall does not highlight this point himself.

All Indian prime ministers have played a decisive role in shaping foreign policy. But Modi has shown scant concern for process and consultation in the making of foreign policy and also for its implementation.  More ideological than pragmatic, he has never presented a strategic document. His closest friends and advisers represent Hindu nationalist thinking. The Modi establishment has never explained how its Hindu nationalism relates ends to means in foreign policy. In foreign, as in domestic policy, Modi has been helped by the willingness of bureaucrats to accept and carry out his agenda.

Photo opportunities with several world leaders have helped Modi  to overcome domestically the image of India as a country in economic decline  over the last five years. But abroad? Initially he had  limited success in drawing some foreign investment into India but he is no economic liberal. Since the painful demonetisation in  2016 many foreign investors  have taken their cash out of the country. Modi’s  statist, protectionist, disincentivising  approach is at odds with his rhetoric about India’s openness and  embrace of globalisation. And Hindu nationalists  are concerned that liberalisation would be attend by pernicious foreign influences  on Indian society.  The spread of China’s Belt and Road Initiative across Asia, Europe and Africa has highlighted  India’s economic weakness and limited influence even in its own South Asian neighbourhood.

India’s  claim to be  a peacemaking  Hindu world guru lacks credibility amid widespread  reports of  increased   communal violence under Modi’s premiership. New Delhi is  suppressing  dissent and criticism of the  government and simultaneously  trying  to shape “national”  thought through school and university education. None of this increases India’s international appeal as a politically or economic liberal country.

Mr Hall’s  well researched and highly readable book will stimulate debate on Modi’s foreign policy.

Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi

Website: www.anitaindersingh.com


 Ian Hall,  Bristol University Press, 2019,

221  pages; paperback;  Rs 799



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