A Hindu Nationalist Foreign Policy

On March 15, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah traveled to the state of Gujarat to launch his reelection campaign. Speaking to a crowd of Bharatiya Janata Party workers, Shah—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s close associate—argued that the BJP was both advancing the fortunes of everyday Indians and raising India’s reputation around the world. Only the BJP, he said, could enable “a small-time party worker” such as himself and “a tea-seller from a poor family” such as Modi to become the most powerful men in the country. Only Modi, he continued, could have made India safe and prosperous, stood up to China, and brought his country international recognition. Modi “has been the most popular person not only in India but globally,” Shah declared.

There is a reason why Shah made a point of mixing foreign relations and domestic policy in his speech. Unlike during past campaigns, India’s global role is now a central issue in politics. Today, more Indians care about their country’s place in the world than did so a decade ago, and the aspirations of average citizens are mirrored in their nation’s fortunes like never before. The BJP has used this new attention to craft a self-reinforcing message: if the party can catapult an “ordinary citizen” such as Modi to global prominence, it can do the same for a country that has languished in poverty and weakness. Similarly, if Modi can make India secure, prosperous, and widely respected, he can do the same for the Indian voter.

Observers have attributed the mass popularization of foreign policy to Modi’s charisma and the BJP’s political strategy. Modi has certainly brought newfound publicity to international topics. Barring exceptional moments, such as when India and the United States struck a nuclear agreement in 2008, previous governments treated diplomacy as a dull and specialized domain largely cut off from societal concerns. By contrast, the BJP’s rule has infused diplomacy with a sense of national purpose and transformed it into one of the key dimensions on which citizens evaluate their government.

But the expansion of engagement in international relations from the elites to the masses has deeper and more predictable causes. As India rose in power, its population was bound to express a greater interest in international affairs and a greater desire for global respect and recognition. That Modi could fundamentally grasp Indians’ expanding ambitions and channel them speaks to his savvy as a politician.

Yet a nationalist foreign policy does not always serve the national interest. When rising states seek global recognition, they often engage in assertive diplomacy and international conduct that provoke backlash, derailing their ascent. And as New Delhi gains influence, its interests will begin to seriously conflict with those of more powerful governments—including Washington’s. An overconfident public could then become a liability for India’s political leadership, forcing it to magnify minor quarrels with other societies and pushing it toward riskier strategies and more uncompromising stances.

ALL DUE RESPECT

Indians, especially young and urban Indians, are taking an active interest in their country’s place in the world. In a survey last year of 5,000 respondents from ages 18 to 35 across 19 cities, 88 percent agreed that it was important for India to secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and 83 percent similarly thought India should become a permanent part of the G-7. Surveys also show that Indians support the government’s handling of foreign policy. In a 2022 Pew poll, 68 percent of Indian respondents thought their country’s global influence was getting stronger. Although it is difficult to measure whether the approval will translate into votes, politicians are behaving as if it could. Indian parties now routinely factor foreign policy and the nationalist pride related to it into their national and local electoral strategies.

Analysts should not be surprised that Indians are paying more attention to global politics. India’s economic liberalization has made citizens wealthier, and wealthier people tend to take a greater interest in international affairs. A survey on the foreign policy attitudes of over 200,000 Indian households in 2005 and 2006, for example, found that 82 percent of members of India’s lowest socioeconomic group did not know what they thought or could not answer questions about foreign policy, compared with 29 percent among the highest socioeconomic group. At the time, members of the former class made up 30 percent of the country’s population, whereas the latter made up just one percent. Although the official categories used to classify socioeconomic groups have since changed, India’s per capita income has more than doubled since 2005, suggesting that Indians are becoming wealthier on average.

Richer populations are more interested in global affairs partly because they are more likely to have traveled abroad, and Indians are no exception. As the country has prospered, its nationals have visited other countries in record numbers. In the decade before Modi became prime minister in 2014, the annual number of outbound Indian tourists went up by almost 300 percent, to 18 million. During the same period, the number of Indian-born people living in the United States rose by 55 percent, to 2.2 million. These trends have continued—almost 27 million Indian tourists traveled abroad in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the number of Indian-born people in the United States climbed to almost 2.7 million. India is now more connected to the world in other ways, as well. In 2018, 20 percent of the population used the Internet. In 2021, that figure was 46 percent. India is a nation online and on the move, resulting in growing awareness of and proliferating ties to other countries.

As their power grows, states come to expect that countries ranking below them will defer.

But globalization has not made India less nationalistic. In a 2019–20 survey, 72 percent of Indians agreed completely that “Indian culture is superior to others,” nearly identical to the number who answered similarly in 2002: 74 percent. It is therefore no surprise that the BJP, a nationalist party, has benefited from Indians’ growing interest in international relations—or that the BJP has channeled the country’s attitudes into a more assertive foreign policy. This is most evident in the government’s forceful response to potential threats and provocations from its traditional rivals, China and Pakistan. Whereas past governments preferred to act behind the scenes, India under Modi unilaterally crossed the international border with Bhutan to deter Chinese road building in disputed territory in 2017, and it publicly carried out airstrikes on Pakistani soil in 2019.

India’s nationalist pivot may be jarring for foreign governments. But it is not a shocking development. The growing self-confidence of Indian diplomats, the increased sensitivity of Indian nationals to perceived slights against their country, and the general sense among the Indian public that the country has “arrived” on the global stage is in fact reminiscent of another rising and chaotic democracy: the nineteenth-century United States. Writing with some exasperation in the 1850s, the British ambassador to Washington observed how Americans relied on “the power of swagger” and held a “threatening tone to all the world” even though they did not have the military capabilities to match their rhetoric. He argued that American democracy had become “morbidly sensitive to any attack or imaginable indignity against itself” while also being insensitive to any whiff of justice or fair play in its dealings with others. Such a complaint might well be heard today from any number of Western diplomats dealing with India.

Other rising powers with widely differing political systems have behaved similarly. Early-twentieth-century Japan—fresh off the economic and military successes of the Meiji era—was consumed by nationalistic fervor and public feelings of entitlement to equal rank with the great powers of the era. And China, since the beginning of its rapid rise in the 1970s, has also grown more nationalistic, and its turn to belligerent “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy came from a similar desire for international respect. As their power grows, states come to expect that countries ranking below them will defer to them and that countries above them will make room for their continued ascent.

NATIONALISM VS. INTERNATIONALISM

Modi is not the first Indian leader with global ambitions. The country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also sought a leading role for India and worked energetically from the 1940s to the 1960s to promote a distinct brand of foreign policy—nonalignment with both the Soviet Union and the United States—through international institutions. But Nehru’s efforts resonated with only a narrow domestic elite; the wider populace was too beset by poverty to care about intangibles such as international recognition. India today, by contrast, is a rising power whose population is primed for leaders to manipulate national aspirations for domestic and international gains. Modi has also successfully used a more confident and assertive society and diaspora to bolster his party’s political fortunes and to improve India’s global standing.

It is, in some respects, surprising that Modi could capitalize so effectively on foreign issues. The prime minister had minimal diplomatic experience when he took office, in 2014. Yet this lack of familiarity enabled him to craft a new way of interacting with the world, one that turned diplomacy into performance art for the masses. As a populist leader accustomed to bypassing traditional institutions, appealing directly to his supporters, and tightly controlling information, Modi (and his government) used the media and large rallies to great effect. They have, for example, held mega-events for the Indian diaspora at Wembley Stadium in London and Madison Square Garden in New York City, launched a relentless publicity blitz promoting diplomatic meetings, and carried out methodical social media campaigns across the world. The party is constantly reaching out to people everywhere, trying to gain supporters. Even with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi has undertaken more international visits in his two terms as prime minister than his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, did in his two.

The Modi government’s foreign policy messaging has been consistent. It is creating a new policy paradigm based on self-defined Hindu civilizational values, a transactional approach to power politics, a willingness to use or threaten to use military force, and a desire to shoulder global responsibilities by working with other countries. These policies flow from India’s stated goal of becoming a leading global power, and they are visible in a variety of initiatives—for example, in New Delhi’s promotion of the International Day of Yoga, its refusal to take sides in the war in Ukraine, its coercive diplomacy against Pakistan, and its proactive climate multilateralism. In some ways, these initiatives are not new: Indian governments have always sought to promote Indian culture, resist Western domination, coerce Pakistan, and solve transnational problems collectively. But Modi’s BJP stands out for its singular interpretation of Indian culture and its willingness to take greater diplomatic risks, such as the 2019 strikes in Pakistan.

A society that takes offense at even minor slights will quickly encounter pushback.

The growing importance of India cannot, of course, be credited entirely to Modi or his government’s initiatives (or those of past prime ministers). The country has been helped, albeit indirectly, by China. As Beijing has become a persistent threat to its neighbors in Asia and to the West, India’s stock has risen. The United States, in particular, is wooing India in an effort to constrain China’s ambitions. As long as New Delhi can help countries compete with Beijing, India will have plenty of international partners, giving it considerable room for maneuver in its external relations.

But China’s story is also a cautionary tale. As Beijing arrived as a world player, it abandoned its strategy of building friendly ties with other countries based on mutual economic gain. Instead, driven by popular and elite nationalism, it began strongly asserting claims to contested territory, acting recklessly in its own region, and demanding deference from others—alienating its neighbors and virtually every major power except Russia. This path is particularly fraught because rising nationalism exacerbates routine conflicts of interest. A society and polity that take offense at even minor slights will quickly encounter pushback from other states, in turn intensifying domestic anxieties and feelings of wounded pride, leading to a vicious cycle of provocation. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan provides a case in point. Beijing described the visit as a provocation and warned the United States not to “play with fire.” Pelosi, unbowed, went anyway. China then began conducting military exercises around Taiwan, further raising the stakes in the strait. Ironically, when the dust settled, Chinese nationalists accused their government of making empty threats and not doing enough to stand up to the United States.

India is still early in its trajectory as a rising power. But there are signs it may fall into a similar trap. According to U.S. intelligence officials, New Delhi assassinated a Sikh Canadian national—officially designated a terrorist by the Indian government—on Canadian soil in 2023. Ottawa condemned the attack and demanded an explanation from New Delhi. Instead of seeking a way to defuse this crisis, it took umbrage at Canada for harboring Sikh separatists and pledged to protect India’s security (while also denying the allegations). New Delhi also moved to expel Canadian diplomats and suspend new visas for Canadians wishing to visit India. Later in the year, U.S. officials accused New Delhi of plotting to assassinate a Sikh American, sparking another dispute.

When foreign policy itself becomes nationalist, it gives rise to self-defeating risks.

These episodes command worldwide attention. But they mark the continuation of a journey that India has been on for some time. The 2013 arrest of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York, on charges of visa fraud, led to a public outcry in India. The Indian government even revoked its security protections for the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. Since then, India and the United States have developed reliable means of managing such controversies. But both can expect more—and more tenacious—challenges as the international order becomes contested and as India’s foreign policy is increasingly wrapped up in nationalistic domestic politics. “A nationalist outlook will naturally produce a nationalist diplomacy, and it is something that the world will need to get used to,” Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar argued in his 2024 book on his country.

Most modern societies, of course, are nationalistic to some degree. But when foreign policy itself becomes nationalist, it gives rise to self-defeating risks. Today, India is embroiled in controversies over extraterritorial assassinations. Tomorrow, its government could find itself embroiled in controversies over the external interrogation of India’s democratic credentials, the treatment of Indians abroad, or China’s growing closeness to India’s smaller neighbors. It might, for example, interfere in the domestic politics of other countries to undermine foreign critics. It could economically bully smaller countries that do not fall in line. Great powers—including the United States—routinely resort to such tactics. But they are also well positioned to manage the consequences. As a rising power, India is still far from that level of global heft and influence.

A nationalist diplomacy backed by an increasingly confident and assertive public will also make such issues difficult to resolve by limiting the scope for compromise. Voters, for example, may turn against a government that—having set high expectations—falters in protecting expansive versions of the country’s interests and honor. National pride may know no bounds, but foreign policy must operate in a highly constrained environment. India’s political leadership will therefore have to work carefully to ensure that its nationalist diplomacy does not undermine national objectives. At the same time, India’s friends and partners will have to adjust to its assertive demeanor—in part, by making room for the country as it ascends in the international order.

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