A spate of inquiries into the nature of rising India, specifically under the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have attempted to examine the role of Hindutva as the guiding philosophical framework for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) foreign policy orientation. Present-day iterations of both the BJP and its key associate and ideological repository, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS), claim allegiance to long-standing Hindu ideas on politics, economics, and society.
These variegated ideas, espoused most prominently by figures such as Swami Vivekananda, V.D. Savarkar, H. V. Sheshadri, and M.S. Golwalkar, were formed during a period of Hindu renaissance in early to mid-20th century colonial India. At the time, these interlocutors attempted to define the religion’s scope in exclusivist “national” terms by adumbrating the requisites and rituals of “Indianness” that were considered vital to gaining legitimate membership in the nation. Their political project was mainly realized through exceptionalist re-readings of the subcontinent’s cultural history that embraced mythologized paeans and ballads of Hindu greatness in India’s ancient past, which were followed by despairing narratives of victimhood instigated by foreign invasion, moral corruption, loot, and plunder – with special emphasis reserved for the British and Mughals.
Surprisingly, attempts to explain the influence of this particular nationalist strand of Hindu political thought or Hindutva on contemporary Indian foreign policy have been lacking. In fact, most prominent commentators have been entirely dismissive of its role. For instance, Rajesh Basrur claims that “foreign policy under Modi picks up from where his predecessors left off and is characterized by essential continuity.” Even while the “Hindutva tag embodies for many a foreign policy approach that is ‘muscular’ or even aggressive… [in actuality] this is not the case.” On the other hand, Kanti Bajpai views a marked shift in policymaking, but attributes it to exogenous factors such as “strategic exasperation” or the realization that “earlier policy, having been tried since 1988, [was] simply not working.” Ian Hall’s recently published book “Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy” is a welcome advance on previous explanations, but it too stops short of demonstrating the relevance of Hindutva’s ideas beyond soft power projections and a new-fangled religious tenor to diplomacy. This perplexing gulf between BJP’s purported adherence to Hindutva and its lack of resonance in India’s foreign policy behavior demands a deeper examination.
Before one can claim to remedy these conclusions and recast Modi’s foreign policy in a new light, it is vital to define the substance and scope of Hindutva. Hindutva is not a negotiated expression of Hinduism’s interface with modernity, and neither does it mark the transference of theological-cultural ideas to the realm of the political. Not only would such claims be plagued with internal inconsistencies considering Hinduism’s pacifist and syncretic worldview, but the very act of identifying coherent components of a religion whose prevalence and practice spans across at least a thousand years would be an outlandish historical undertaking. Hindutva is therefore better understood as the politically-motivated reification of Hindu culture in nation-state terms. At the turn of the 20th century, founding members of the Hindutva proper valorized the racial superiority of Hindu peoples in order to tap into the darker recesses of their collective unconscious and infuse the Indian anti-colonial nationalist struggle with a militant and martial zeal. As Christophe Jaffrelot writes: “the Hindutva of Savarkar was conceived primarily as an ethnic community possessing a territory and sharing the same racial and cultural characteristics, three attributes which stemmed from the mythical reconstruction of the Vedic Golden Age.”
On international relations, Hindutva’s outlook is derived from its pessimistic reading of human nature and a consequent focus on aggrandizing national power through material (hard power) and spiritual (domestic social cohesion) means. As quoted by Rahul Sagar, Savarkar writes:
Buddhism had made the first and yet the greatest attempt to propagate a universal religion… Truly, it was a law of Righteousness. It had no ulterior end in view, no lust for land or lucre quickening its steps; but grand though its achievements were, it could not eradicate the seeds of animal passions nor of political ambitions nor of individual aggrandizement in the minds of all men…
[T]he human condition is scarred by an incessant terrible struggle for existence, survival of the fittest is the rule in nature.
As is evident, Hindutva assumes as natural a Hobbesian view of global politics. Its reasoning thus shares strong resemblances with classical realists such as Hans Morgenthau or Reinhold Niebuhr. They too proclaimed an uncovering of the unchanging and objective reality of international politics by identifying the “will to dominate” as the main motivational force for states.
But Hindutva only shares a partial picture of the international system with such realists, and consequently offers a uniquely Indian variant for the purposes of international relations. Hindutva’s adherents embrace the violence of political modernity, the full potentialities of coercion in diplomatic interaction, and an extractive nationalism (think the Citizenship Amendment Act or National Register of Citizens). But they are mainly hyper “self-help” actors who continue to have an awkward relationship with forms of external balancing or military alliances that require a formalized, institutional approach to national security. Instead, Hindutva adherents prefer “self-reliant” military capacity-building. Such precepts have continued to characterize the worldview of Hindutva’s successive interlocutors, including, since the BJP’s ascension to power in 2014, Modi.
Hindutva’s realism has two effects: greater reliance on coercive signaling, brinkmanship, and a willingness to use military power for force projection, as well as a partial and imperfect shift toward external balancing. The first is visible in the changing tenor of India’s relations with Pakistan. In response to terrorist attacks by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on an Indian Army camp in the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on September 18, 2016, Modi decided to shed his predecessors’ characteristic restraint and announced that India had conducted surgical strikes across Line of Control (LOC). While such cross-border raids on terrorist launch pads have been a common feature, India’s acknowledgement was a major sign that it was willing to raise the stakes and impose (public) costs.
On February 14, 2019, when a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian security personnel was attacked by a vehicle-based suicide bomber in the Pulwama district of J&K, India carried out air strikes against the JeM in Balakot, Pakistan, across the LOC. As the crisis escalated, Modi was willing to openly threaten Pakistan with the use of nuclear weapons. Despite arguably more egregious terror attacks – such as the one on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai in 2008 – nuclear brinkmanship has not been a feature of India-Pakistan relations until Modi. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh has in fact diluted India’s long-held commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons, claiming it was contingent on circumstances. The stopping of water supplies to Pakistan and reneging on the Indus Water Treaty have also been touted. Undoubtedly, there’s greater appetite for risk-taking and use of coercive instruments.
On the second point, India’s approach to the Quad and balancing behavior toward China are exemplary. While India has shown enthusiasm for the Quad to balance China’s rise in the aftermath of Sino-Indian border clashes (e.g. inviting Australia to the Malabar exercises), External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar simultaneously reiterated India’s commitment to preserving its strategic autonomy. Cursorily this may seem like a continuation of Nehruvian thinking, but the logic of Hindutva’s realism is different. Hindutva thinkers are reluctant to commit to a formalized military alliance against China because they have stronger preferences for internal balancing practices in comparison to external balancing ones that require relying on allies to meet one’s security interests. Simply put, they do not trust external balancing to satisfactorily address India’s needs. Their emphasis is on domestic capacity building instead. Economic sanctions on Chinese technology and goods and the reciprocal militarization of the border show that Modi is not a reluctant to use coercive instruments; he just may not have good options against a more powerful foe. However, for the Quad to realize its military potential other members may have to invest in India’s military (through technology sharing or aid) and economic capacity (through FDI) to encourage New Delhi to share the burden of wider security concerns in Asia.
In the cases of both Pakistan and China, the influence of Hindutva’s unique brand of realism on Modi’s foreign policy is apparent. Adjusting to these new preferences will be required of both India’s allies and adversaries.
Ameya Pratap Singh is reading for a DPhil (PhD) in Area Studies at the University of Oxford.