Modi’s Outreach: Identity and Realist Foreign Policy
In 1950, India became a republic headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, a silver tongued orator, one with a fine command of the English language and part of the Cambridge mold. The constitution was written by B.R. Ambedkar, a man who preferred a suit to traditional Indian garb and who had his intellect trimmed at Columbia University in the United States. Unquestionably, India’s founding members and their western cultural influences have played a significant role shaping its identity.
However, an independent republic did not mean social cohesion nor freedom for all. India was still grappling with princely states and there were fresh wounds like that of the partition. In order to mend fences within the nation and abroad, India’s first Prime Minister, Nehru, took on a socio-capitalist model wherein a large number of industries were state owned and operated with little room for private sector participation. Politically, Nehru’s approach was of a pacifist, keen on not having bad blood between neighbors, at least not more than that which prevailed already.
This model of governance for over 70 years with the Indian National Congress Party had left the electorate aching for a change from the policy and from the Nehruvian dynasty. Systemic corruption, bureaucracy, nepotism and most important of all, India’s identity being limited to a former colony of the British Empire exacerbated the pains of the common man.
‘Bharat’ under Modi and changing relationships
Over 70 years into independence, India under current prime minister Narendra Modi’s leadership seems to be establishing its countenance. A humble man who has his chai piping hot and his food meatless seems to have resonated with a billion plus population. His persona is a breath of fresh air for a populace that is used to its leaders orating in English and taking pride in their western cultural influences. This has aided Modi’s ambitions of reviving India’s historical roots and connections to those countries with whom India has a shared history and culture.
Samuel P. Huntington in his book Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order put forth the argument that the world of the future would face a clash along civilizational lines and growing democracies like India would look to align themselves with the West.
Modi has picked up Huntington’s playbook in part, while also diverging from it by proselytizing the Eastern dictum of “Modernizing without Westernizing.” Since independence, India chose allies and foes based on the electorate’s sentiment and even took a stance of nonalignment during the Cold War, matching its socio-capitalist economic model, i.e. capitalism from the United States and Socialism from the former Soviet Union . In order to appease the Muslim voting bloc, the Indian National Congress pursued a nonaligned strategy even with the Israel-Palestine conflict.
With elections looming in April 2019, Modi’s term in office has changed India’s conventional alliances. India’s foreign policy shed its non-alignment when its prime minister visited Tel Aviv in 2017, skipping Ramallah. The protocol for previous state level visits was to travel to both the capitals of Israel and Palestine. This is a clear sign of changing geopolitical priorities.
Modi, with probably the most stamps on his passport has pursued civilizational outreach as a way to foster friendships. Modi’s “Act East” policy of forging stronger ties with ASEAN countries and his welcoming reception to foreign leaders at his home state of Gujarat, combined with his trip to Israel prove that India has come of age and intends to play a larger role in the world and it plans to pursue it through a Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist civilizational triangle, i.e. forging deeper ties through religion, culture and shared values.
Modi’s visits to Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, Japan and Russia between 2014 and 2017, and the International Solar Alliance are symbolic of this intent. Modi’s embrace of Yoga, bringing it to four corners of the world with Yoga Day and branding it as a symbol of India has enhanced the country’s identity from being limited to the land of the Taj Mahal—built by the 17th century Mughal ruler—to a broader well-represented symbol found in other countries.
Can Nationalism and Multilateralism work together?
Modi’s initiatives are nationalistic, though nationalism in the case of India, a former colony is one of decolonizing the Indian mindset and taking pride in its rich heritage.
One such effort was the statue for one of India’s pioneers – Vallabhai Patel. On October 31st 2018, the “Statue of Unity” was unveiled by Modi to celebrate India’s first deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel and his contribution to the nation’s unity. It is worth noting that even though Patel was a member of the Indian National Congress, his views were more of a realist in contrast to the pacifist prime minister to whom he was reporting. His skepticism towards China and his regrets over the lack of support from India’s side to the Tibetan cause made him one of India’s early realist thinkers. While Modi’s initiatives are nationalistic, his commitment to international treaties and multilateralism has not wavered.
A signatory to the Paris climate agreement and other multilateral accords, Modi’s India has spoken highly of international courts of justice and has voiced its support for the judgements on the South China Sea dispute. Even its apprehension in committing to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit can be attributed its strong stance on Chinese trade practices and not an aversion to free trade. The primary fear for Indian industry has been China’s enhanced market access to India, resulting in a ballooning trade deficit with the communist nation.
India’s ‘Act East’ policy has gained momentum and with Modi’s actions the cloud has cleared around India’s strategic and civilizational allies. Modi has engaged partners around the globe while driving a hard line for Indian interests, ensuring it has a unique voice on the global stage.
The question will be whether the Judeo-Christian West will ally with the Judeo-Hindu-Buddhist civilization of the East that Modi seeks to build, under shared values of democracy and sovereignty. Modi’s commitment to broadening India’s identity through his party’s nationalistic fervor has not limited his foreign policy objectives. The commitment to multilateralism abroad and nationalism at home do not have to be mutually exclusive. Modi’s India is a case in point.