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 Mr Modi’s foreign policy. For instance, the Pulwama terrorist attack before the 2019 elections worsened relations with Pakistan and probably won Mr 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.
Mr Modi’s BJP-RSS combine strongly dislikes Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideal of secular democratic nationalism. The two intertwined institutions 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 Mr Modi’s domestic and foreign policies and shaped his 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 Mr Modi, including samman (dignity).
Sections of the Hindu diaspora — especially in the US — may support Mr 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?
Mr 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, in 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.
Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Modi has shown scant concern for process and consultation in the making of foreign policy. 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, Mr 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. Mr Modi’s statist, protectionist, disincentivising approach is at odds with his rhetoric about India’s openness and embrace of globalisation. 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 simultaneously trying to shape “national” thought through school and university education.
Mr Hall’s well-researched and highly readable book will stimulate debate on Modi’s foreign policy.
The reviewer is a founding professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. Website: www.anitaindersingh.com
MODI AND THE REINVENTION OF INDIAN FOREIGN POLICY
Ian Hall, Bristol University Press,
221 pages; Rs 799