Much has been written about Narendra Modi’s domestic political interests, but he still remains a rather opaque figure when it comes to foreign policy. I’ve tried to grok his approach to international affairs in the past, but he still remains somewhat enigmatic, offering relatively little in the way of a conceptually coherent view of what he sees as India’s rightful place in the world. In appealing to his nationalistic base of support, he has offered sharp words on China and Pakistan. On Wednesday, in an interview with The Indian Express, Modi shared a few more thoughts on international affairs and how he would guide India’s foreign policy should he emerge as the next prime minster:
I believe in Hindutva which is based on the age-old concept of “Vasudeva Kutumba.” I believe mutual respect for one another and cooperation should be the basis for relationships with foreign nations. And I am confident my Hindutva face will be an asset when dealing with foreign affairs with other nations.
I will follow the (foreign) policies of the Vajpayee-led NDA government… And that also applies to relationship with the United States. I don’t think a decision taken by any individual or one event should impact the overall policy.
What jumps out to me on first glance is Modi’s willingness to answer a question about foreign policy with reference to Hindutva. He hasn’t explicitly mentioned his belief in Hindutva and Hindu nationalism when discussing international affairs in the past — even with reference to Pakistan and China. Modi’s most detailed thoughts on India’s relations with the rest of the world have largely been related to economics and in that domain he has mostly emphasized his interest in paradiplomacy (allowing Indian cities and states to pursue international linkages independent of the central government).
The relationship of Hindutva thought and Hindu nationalism to contemporary international relations isn’t entirely clear or coherent, and neither is Modi’s characterization of his own status as a Hindu nationalist leader here. In particular, “vasudeva kutumba” is a Sanskrit phrase that essentially says all the world is a single family — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a radical Hindu nationalist organization, has used the phrase as a motto. Modi has been a lifelong member of the RSS. The phrase, however, belies Hindutva’s more martial elements. Little in contemporary Hindutva thought supports the harmonious undertones of the phrase Modi chose to use in his interview at The Indian Express.
When Modi says he is confident that his “Hindutva face” will be an asset in dealing with foreign affairs, he is likely referring to his assertive demeanor compared to incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s soft-spoken temperament — a point that the prime minister’s critics have often emphasized.
In the remainder of his answer, Modi points again to his interest in pursuing the policies that Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA coalition followed during its five-year time in office. Modi has emphasized this in the past, noting that he appreciated Vajpayee’s ability to project shakti (strength) and preserve shanti (peace). The deference to Vajpayee-era policies allows Modi to remain ambiguous about precisely where he stands on several important issues of foreign policy — including issues raised in the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto.
At this point, the more we hear about Modi’s thoughts on foreign policy, the more it becomes apparent that his election would likely change little at all. Indian foreign policy since independence has been immune to sudden paradigmatic shifts and there is no reason to believe that Modi’s election would change that.