IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Whither a Foreign Policy of Hindutva?

Written by Paul S. Rowe.

Three years after the formation of the BJP’s majority government in 2014, it is difficult to point to specific ways that its roots in Hindutva have affected its foreign policy goals. Domestically, vigilantes and extremists in the Bajrang Dal, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Sangh Parivar have enjoyed expanding freedom of movement under the BJP.  They have enjoyed political victories at home such as the recent passage of an anti-conversion law in Jkharkhand.

The mounting victories of the Hindu right have led Christophe Jaffrelot to argue that India is effectively becoming an “ethnoreligious democracy”. But when it comes to foreign policy, the centre’s approach shares much in common with the former Congress regime, except insofar as it has more enthusiastically embraced neoliberal reforms in trade and economics.  Whilst the first BJP government celebrated the test of India’s “Hindu bomb” back in 1998, Modi’s foreign policy goals are rarely articulated with the same rhetorical flourish of religious nationalism.

Stepping down from the rath yatra and onto the airport runway allows Mr. Modi to transcend the more parochial environment of Indian sectarian politics.

In part, this is because the ideological compass of religious nationalism points in very few directions when it comes to foreign policy.  There is no lack of regimes that share the BJP’s roots in religious nationalism, but by definition, it is an ideology that narrows the range of partners.  Where the BJP has developed good relations with other religious nationalist regimes – such as those in Japan or Israel – there are usually more important strategic and economic reasons that underpin the partnership.  Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu would hardly bat an eye at the BJP’s anti-Islamic rhetoric, and has few concerns about the status of Jewish communities in India.  But the two states share an antipathy to Islamist terrorism rooted in simple realist calculations.  Likewise, Japan’s Shinzo Abe shares a strategic interest with India in countering Chinese hegemony on the Asian continent, and his nationalist backers would never be threatened by the chauvinist fringe of the Sangh Parivar.

On the other hand, Hindutva does not provide a particularly strong basis for cooperation with religious nationalists in the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, which might seem dangerously like a modern-day central Asian sultanate.  Nor is Hindu nationalism a winning strategy to win over evangelical religious nationalists in the United States, who commonly hear complaints about the more radical activities of the Sangh Parivar in places like Kandhamal.

As aggressive as the religious right is in India, Hinduism is not typically viewed as a proselytizing religion, and therefore makes relatively few universalist claims.  For this reason, Hindutva is unlikely to be threatening to countries without large Hindu populations.  Even if partner organizations such as the VHP’s American branch seek to spread its worldview, the aim has much more to do with supporting the movement in the home country than in spreading the faith abroad.  The large Indian diaspora, represented in increasingly visible Hindu organizations in North America, the UK, and Australia, do help to extend India’s influence but also signal some concern in those societies about their support for the Sangh Parivar back at home.

Indeed, given the fact that only his election as prime minister gave him an exemption from a long-standing ban on visiting the United States, it makes some sense that Mr. Modi would actually downplay his religious nationalist credentials on trips abroad.  His welcome in foreign capitals provided new inroads for the Hindutva movement worldwide – but more importantly gave them credence at home.  Here is the real lesson for Modi’s Hindutva backers:  foreign diplomacy provides the kind of international recognition and respectability that distracts from Hindutva’s more extreme peccadillos.  Stepping down from the rath yatra and onto the airport runway allows Mr. Modi to transcend the more parochial environment of Indian sectarian politics.  It also allows such sectarian politics to go on unheeded – or ignored – by both Indians and foreigners.

In office, Narendra Modi has famously spent long periods of time abroad.  He also has a habit of making political decisions – and engaging in cabinet shuffles – just prior to major international trips.  Early on, he gained as much traction as possible from the highly-publicized visit of Barack Obama in January 2015.  He gained notoriety for India’s energetic response to the earthquake in Nepal (albeit another majority Hindu state) in April 2015.  Modi’s rhetorical embrace of neoliberalism contributes to his celebrity at the G20, as in Hamburg this past summer.

On his foreign trips, Modi’s economic and infrastructural priorities are on full display, extending consistent messaging from his days governing “vibrant” Gujarat, policies for which he was resoundingly elected among India’s rising middle-class voters.  Abroad, the BJP government can present an open-for-business image that warms the hearts of investors and creates few enemies.

But the shine may be coming off the foreign policy halo as the protectionist and xenophobic fringe of the Hindutva movement begins to drive Indian foreign relations.  Over the past year, tensions between India and China have reinvigorated the Hindu right’s protectionist wing, with calls to boycott Chinese goods.   Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Myanmar presented an opportunity for the Indian government to respond with undue haste to the gathering crisis of the Rohingya people by stressing the security implications of Burma’s attacks on its besieged Muslim minority.

Whilst foreign economic and security policy has allowed Modi to distract from the gathering clouds of sectarianism at home, the narrow worldview of his base back at home threatens to limit Indian progress.

Protectionist and nationalist sentiment has waxed in the era of Brexit and Trumpism.   Will Prime Minister Modi be able to maintain a consistently globalist vision as global partnerships fade?  Or will the darker instincts of his constituency redirect Indian foreign policy in other directions?  If so, the veneer of respectability that Indian foreign policy gives to the BJP may begin to fade.  And its role in promoting the respectability of Hindutva may fade along with it.

Paul Rowe is Professor and Coordinator of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University, Canada. He is the author of Religion and Global Politics (2012). Image Credit: CC by President of Russia.