Hindu Nationalism and ... Foreign Policy?
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Hindu Nationalism and ... Foreign Policy?


India’s general elections are drawing close, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is the frontrunner. Despite this, little is known about Modi’s intentions for Indian foreign policy. When I covered what little Modi had said about foreign policy in the past, I observed that on an intellectual level, Modi expressed appreciation for the foreign policy beliefs and practices of India’s last BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. In Modi’s words, Vajpayee demonstrated an ability to maneuver Indian foreign policy between shanti (peace) and shakti (power). In the realm of domestic policy, much is made about Modi’s Hindu nationalist credentials – his critics and supporters alike dwell on the fact that his election to power would bring a decidedly non-secular leader to the fore. While the implications of a Hindu nationalist in the prime minister’s office has important implications for India’s domestic politics, what does a Hindu nationalist reading for foreign policy look like?

Hindu nationalism means many things to many people today in India. At its most extreme poles, self-identified Hindu nationalists want to preserve India as the bastion of Hinduism, resorting to violence if necessary (see groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS). However, more moderate Hindu nationalists – a category in which I believe the likes of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Narendra Modi, and other BJP leaders can be included – take the view that India’s unique heritage as the birthplace of Hinduism and its overwhelming Hindu majority warrant that its government undertake policies cognizant of that reality. In this sense, the BJP largely opposes India’s post-independence tendency to pursue secular redistributive and populist policies. This topic is vastly more complex but, in general, this is where modern Indian Hindu nationalists take issue with India’s Congress leaders.

On the foreign policy front, contemporary Hindu nationalism is poorly understood. Salient features of Indian foreign policy, such as non-alignment and strategic autonomy, emerge from the Nehruvian tradition of international relations. Hindu nationalists have a markedly different view of the world. Two intellectual heavyweights of the Hindu nationalist movement, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madhav Golwalkar, have written quite a bit about what Hindutva (a term coined by Savarkar roughly equivalent to Hindu nationalism) means for India’s engagement with the outside world.

The most relatable element of Hindu nationalism’s underlying logic of international relations is that it is largely a realist tradition. Savarkar and Golwalkar understand the world as a Hobbesian world of competing sovereigns where states are self-interested and outcomes are zero sum. Consequently, the Thucydidean notion of the strong doing what they can and the weak suffering what they must is very much real and relevant for foreign policy-making.

Where Hindu nationalists depart with Western realists like Thucydides, Morgenthau, and Waltz is with their insistence that for a country to be strong it must cultivate a strong sense of national identity. This idea is most explicitly made by Savarkar in his Hindu nationalist magnum opus Essentials of Hindutva. Savarkar writes that national identity is conferred by three critical criteria: common blood, common laws and rites, and common culture. This might surprise readers who would expect religion to feature strongly in a description of nationality by the supposed godfather of Hindu nationalism. Savarkar was an odd fellow in this sense; he was an atheist and pragmatist himself and saw a need to incorporate India’s multiple religious traditions into Hindutva. Above those three factors, he argues that a common geography must circumscribe the nation. In this sense, if Savarkar were alive today, he would see Pakistan and Bangladesh as belonging to the Hindu “nation.”

This definition of national identity has important implications for foreign policy and national defense. Always the pragmatist, Savarkar sees a strong national identity as ultimately necessary for a strong national military. In his view, a shared national identity gives soldiers something to fight for and those with a strong sense of identity will always fight better than those without. He writes in Essentials of Hindutva:

Moreover everything that is common in us with our enemies, weakens our power of opposing them. The foe that has nothing in common with us is the foe likely to be most bitterly resisted by us just as a friend that has almost everything in him that we admire and prize in ourselves is likely to be the friend we love most.

This is the true essence of Hindutva. Savarkar can be read in this context as a defensive strategist focused on nationalism as an instrument of martial cohesion and national unity. He follows the above passage with the following, which further cements his interest in national cohesion:

What was the use of a universal faith that instead of soothening [sic] the ferociousness and brutal egoism of other nations only excited their lust by leaving India defenseless and unsuspecting ? No; the only safe-guards in future were valor and strength that could only be born of a national self-consciousness.

For Savarkar, the objective of Hindutva is defensive readiness — to prevent the sort of subjugation India had experienced under the British. The relationship of this strategic assertion is tenuous with regards to religion. Instead of Hinduism the religion, what drove the original Hindu nationalist’s understanding of foreign policy was Indian-ness (for lack of a better term).

Before I end this very rough description of Hindu nationalist thought and what it has to say about foreign policy, I should caveat that like most ideologies, Hindutva and Hindu nationalism as imagined by Savarkar has been corrupted by his contemporary followers in several important ways. Contemporary critics of Hindu nationalism on the Indian political scene see the movement as Hindu supremacism more than anything else, and not entirely falsely in many cases. Hinduism rather than Indian-ness has take the core of contemporary Hindu nationalism. Therefore, an ideology with its roots in realism has been usurped by the politics of identity.

Fortunately, sixty-some years of Congress supremacy in determining India’s foreign policy have resulted in a foreign policy bureaucracy and intelligentsia in India that sees Hindu nationalism as an entirely irrelevant framework for framing foreign policy. Even with the most ardent Hindu nationalist prime minister in office, Indian foreign policy will be driven by economic growth and preserving national security. To be sure, India’s propensity for non-alignment and strategic autonomy has its own problems, but its dominance over the years insulates Indian foreign policy from suddenly swinging towards an opposite extreme.

If Narendra Modi comes out on top in India’s upcoming electoral contest, those of us who study and watch India’s behavior on the world stage will nonetheless need to more seriously examine the ideas underlying the Hindu nationalist’s understanding of the world. The intellectual tradition is as old as independent India itself but has remained confined to the political opposition for the most greater part of a century. This could change in 2014.

April 5, 2014 at 02:42

i hope this article is not paid bcoz this is so biased that author didnt mention that why all want to dethrone the dynastic congress lead upa gov.

April 5, 2014 at 02:28

Some of the things what the author said are right that too in 1970 & 1980.Believe it or not most of the youth in india dont know about hindu nationalism & no one cares about it. Most of the modi supporters are fed up with current congress lead ”upa” gov and their dynastic,kleptocratic,monarchic rule keep what ever name you can.All the bjp supporters are not hindu nationalists.According to my experiences i can say that if next bjp lead nda is biased to hindus or if they wont take care of muslims & others even the hindus also wont vote bjp in 2019.THE AUTHOR IS MISLEADING THE READERS BY GIVING CRAP INFORMATION ABOUT SENSITIVE ISSUES.

Nini Hala
April 5, 2014 at 02:20

The author has an Indian name but does not have an understanding of issues here. She mistakes pro muslim policies for secularism. She is wanting to instil apprehensions in minds of world leaders about rise of Narendra Modi by holding out a bogeyman. I can assure all that BJP’s foreign policy will be firmly rooted in realism.
As regards her assessment that Savarkar’s Hindutva has been corrupted by current proponents, it is not borne out by any facts or analysis.

April 4, 2014 at 15:52

I hope that Modi can assert indian interests more forcefully in the indian ocean.

April 6, 2014 at 03:38

Forget Coco Islands Bankotsu :)

MBI Munshi
April 4, 2014 at 13:55

While Mr. Ankit Panda recognizes that, “if Savarkar were alive today, he would see Pakistan and Bangladesh as belonging to the Hindu ‘nation.’” but does not take the implications or analysis of this any further and what this notion might mean for the South Asia region especially with the rise of Modi and the BJP. There is one element or concept that Nehru, Savarkar and Golwalkar all share and that is the idea of an Akhand Bharat or Greater India. This necessitates a hegemonic and expansionist foreign policy that could certainly invite conflict in the South Asia region. Indeed Nehru’s Forward Policy did lead to war with China in 1962 and newly revealed documents suggest that India was the aggressor in that particular conflict. There are indications that Modi will adopt a more muscular foreign policy if he were to become Prime Minister but it has not been clarified as to what this might mean in practice. I have argued in my book that whichever party comes to power in India they will continue the policy of hegemony and expansionism but only the methods and tactics will differ. While the Congress tends to be more subtle and coy about its foreign policy objectives the BJP may well be more overt but both strive to achieve an Akhand Bharat in South Asia.

Read the original English version of The India Doctrine (1947-2007) at Academia.edu –


April 4, 2014 at 17:57

What are your views on indian ocean, will India clash with the U.S. regarding the U.S. military bases in indian ocean in the future?

Indira Gandhi opposed the U.S. base on Diego Garcia.

MBI Munshi
April 5, 2014 at 08:59

I think Indian opposition to US presence in the Indian Ocean region has already started. I am seeing an adverse Indian reaction in US attempts to establish bases in Maldives and Sri Lanka and you a are right about Diego Garcia. Many people do not realize but the Devyani scandal is a fall out from the
growing bitterness between the US and India over these issues.

Himanil Raina
April 4, 2014 at 11:38

I believe examining Savarkar and seeking lessons for contemporary foreign policy is quite irrelevant since to begin with his thoughts never translated into actions even under the NDA regime (1999-2004). As compared to then the BJP is much calmer on the Hindutva matter and a close perusal of Modi’s electoral campaign shows a surprising lack of resort to Hindu nationalist devices (except in one trip to the North east when talking vis a vis migrants). He’s largely refrained from showing a glimpse of what foreign policy under him will look like. His few comments relating to the armed forces have related to issues like OROP (One Rank One Pension) and vague talk of further developing indigenous capabilities. He seems to be more focused on the economic than the military dimension so far and I believe only time well tell to what extent if at all the work of individuals like Savarkar moves him in the foreign policy realm.

April 4, 2014 at 06:52

India does not need to look far … Chanakya left behind a treasure of wisdom, which can form the back bone of India’s foreign policy … having said that, given the lack of economic and military muscle, India is not doing all that bad on foreign policy front … except for the historic blunders by Nehru … the curse on India … !!

April 4, 2014 at 00:49

Its hard because if used to mean a moderate secular standpoint, it becomes a confusing misnomer. Muslim BJP members cannot say that they are Hindu Nationalists. There is no Hindu Nationalism and Muslim Nationalism in India. BJP leaders are Hindus and Nationalists and their foreign policy is only about the latter attrib. IMO Savarkar is not that relevant to defining BJP’s policies, at-least not anymore.

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