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Under Modi, How Did Hindu Nationalism Affect India’s Foreign Relations?

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The Pulse

Under Modi, How Did Hindu Nationalism Affect India’s Foreign Relations?

The spirit of nationalist ideology remained trapped in the body of the country’s pragmatic needs.

Under Modi, How Did Hindu Nationalism Affect India’s Foreign Relations?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Chetankhanna1502

As the day of reckoning for Narendra Modi’s government in India has come and elections are in progress, various kinds of summaries of his tenure keep emerging. One of the many angles one could look at is whether the ideology of Hindu nationalism – professed by Modi’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – affected Indian foreign policy in any meaningful way over the last five years.

Modi and many of his party colleagues belong to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization that follows a rigid nationalist outlook. One could have expected that the strong ideological roots of most of the cabinet members would affect India’s policies toward the outside world. This has not happened much, however, and India’s foreign policy retained a high degree of continuity and exhibited just gradual change. The course of the ship was kept through tenures of various ruling coalitions and Modi did not divert from it either.

Yet, measuring the impact of ideology is challenging. Nobody denies that ideas are important, but it is often difficult to measure their precise significance. This in an issue I once briefly discussed with the erudite Zorawar Daulet Singh of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi: foreign policy offers us ample source material, but these data will often not help to verify how the decisions of policy makers were driven by their ideas. Moreover, ideology is always one of many crucial factors on the front of domestic politics, but in foreign relations its spirit is always kept within the limits of a body of the country’s core needs, such as security and economic progress.

Modi’s cabinet has, for instance, proved to be bolder in dealings with Pakistan in the second half of its tenure (2016-2019) than the two previous Congress-led governments (from 2004-2014). One could assume that Hindu nationalism – the proponents of which always demanded that New Delhi deal with Pakistan by applying strong measures – was an important aspect of this position. And yet Modi was also much more conciliatory toward Islamabad at the beginning of his tenure (2014-2015). The BJP has also not fulfilled its promise of facilitating the comeback of Kashmiri Pandits – a community of Hindu priests that had to flee the Kashmir valley where they were persecuted by Muslim radicals. This step would both fit in perfectly well with the goals of Hindu nationalism and send out a strong message to Islamabad.

Then again, in 2016, Modi’s government replied boldly after the terrorist attacks in Uri and Pathankot (both orchestrated by extremist organizations from Pakistan) by ordering “surgical strikes” on camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. But that measure was not a novelty: India responded with similar operations in 2008, 2010 and 2011, under a different government. The one moment when Modi’s cabinet really raised the bar in security relations with Islamabad was the airstrike on Balakot in 2019. It was a yet another, single punitive operation against a radical Pakistani organization and a reply to an earlier terrorist attack in Indian Kashmir. But what set that action apart by making it more risky and bold was the use of the Indian Air Force and attacking a target within Pakistan proper, not in disputed Kashmir. One could argue that Hindu nationalism as an influencing thought was one of the reasons the cabinet took this step, while the governments 2004-2014 shied away from such action. But this influence can neither be ruled out nor proven. One could as well speculate that the exceptional form the operation took can be explained by the fact that the tensions took place just before the elections and Narendra Modi’s government really needed to show it can stand up to its foes.

Let me list six other points to consider in this discussion.

First, the shades of ideology were hardly visible in New Delhi’s policy toward the three main global powers: the United States, China, and Russia. India’s cooperation with United States has been evolving for many years now, and none of the previous governments tried to turn the ship in another direction (the Communist parties are the only ones who would wish to do so). But Modi did his best not to neglect the weakened relationship with Russia either. Nationalist boldness was also invisible in his conciliatory (and unsuccessful) gestures towards China.

Second, Modi has been trying hard to strengthen India’s growing relationship with Israel, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit that country. It is also palpable that the Palestinian issue is being gradually sidelined in New Delhi’s policy towards the Middle East (although Modi stopped by in Palestine for three hours in 2017 and expressed his government support for a two-state solution and an “independent” Palestine). These developments are in tune, it seems, with how earlier Hindu nationalist leaders had called for India to forge stronger ties with Israel rather than with the Muslim Arab countries of the Middle East. But the earlier Indian government had also been enhancing ties with Israel and Modi has not neglected some of the crucial partners among the Arab nations as well (he has paid visits to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, for instance). It would seem that the spirit of ideology was once again locked in the body of India’s everyday needs, as some of the Muslim Arab states house a significant number of Indian workers and export their energy resources to India.

Third, contrary to the most vehement votaries of the free market that declare that money has no nationality, nationalists often declare it does. Both streams of thought are to be found within the coteries of the ruling BJP. Both the party and much more the nationalist organization behind it, the RSS, have been promoting the idea of swadeshi — the promotion of Indian companies and their products and services. But this has hardly translated into any policies under Narendra Modi, himself a major supporter of foreign investment. While in opposition Modi and the BJP had criticized allowing FDI in retail and, yes, they have not overturned this decision once in power. The current government’s flagship “Make in India” program was in reality all about rolling out a red carpet for foreign investors and not protecting the Indian industries. Even some sections of the RSS took a different stand from the BJP government and had at times scolded Modi’s cabinet for its free market-oriented economic policies.

Fourth, one area where Modi’s government seemed to be ideologically more involved was the promotion of Indian culture, including spirituality, as part of its policy. Making the International Yoga Day an official UN celebration and the powerful annual promotion of this event is perhaps the best instance of this. Abhijnan Rej and Rahul Sagar in their apt summary of Modi’s foreign policy for Carnegie gave more such examples:

Under Modi, India has increasingly begun to use religious diplomacy, for instance, as a strategic tool for a variety of ends. The innovation of Buddhist diplomacy has become, variously, a tool to keep the Dalai Lama card alive, forge ties with Southeast Asia, and build bridges with China when needed. Similarly, the aforementioned Kartarpur agreement represents a form of religious diplomacy around Sikhism that could help pave the way (at least in a limited sense) for renewed engagement with Pakistan.

Fifth, the Hindu nationalists perceive Hindu religious identity as the bedrock of Indian national identity and hence perceive any conversion from Hinduism as a threat to national unity. They have been always suspicious – and sometimes even violent – toward Christian missionaries working in India. In this regard Modi’s policy has followed the nationalist spirit by cancelling the licenses of certain foreign Christian NGOs and restricting their activities, although this cannot be considered as part of a direct relation to any state.

Finally, it is perhaps the policy toward refugees where Hindu nationalism surfaced most strongly, as Modi’s government admitted openly that it is unwilling to accept Muslim refugees or to grant citizenship to Muslims of foreign origins. The BJP’s election manifesto of 2014 declared that under its rule “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” Modi’s government was clearly unhappy to accept the (predominantly Muslim) Rohingya refugees from Myanmar once they started to be persecuted again in 2017 and started to flee to nearby countries, including India. The BJP’s decision-makers also ignited a controversy by tabling the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in 2016 and eventually voting it through the lower house of Parliament. The piece of legislation stipulated that after seven years of residence Indian citizenship would be given to any person who had come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan provided that she or he would profess any other religion other than Islam. The bill was criticized for a few reasons – as many found it too liberal – but any rate its goal of granting citizenship based on religious denominations was clear. All of this was capped by the declarations of BJP party president, Amit Shah, during the 2019 election campaign, when he stated that “We will remove every single infiltrator except Buddha (sic), Hindus, and Sikh.”

To sum up, the BJP’s foreign policy took a predictable and rather realistic trajectory. The shades of ideology within the spectrum of its actions and declarations were less visible whenever it came to dealing with the realm of hard power (in aspects such as security and economy) and in relations with stronger nations. They were, however, more apparent whenever domestic politics called for it, and also within the area of soft power (such as culture promotion), as well as in relation to non-state actors and weaker groups (such as Christian NGOs and Muslim refugees).

The author would like to express his gratitude to Shounak Set (King’s College London) for giving him the idea to write this text.