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Hindu Nationalism and … Foreign Policy?

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The Pulse

Hindu Nationalism and … Foreign Policy?

What does Hindu nationalism have to say about international relations?

Hindu Nationalism and … Foreign Policy?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.