Since arriving in office Prime Minister Narendra Modi has infused India’s foreign policy with his distinctive hosh (consciousness) and josh (energy). The difference from his predecessors may be one of degree rather than substance, but it is noticeable and admirable.
What do Modi’s exertions seek to accomplish? Since the end of the Cold War, India’s stated objective has been to become one of the poles of a multipolar world. The question to ponder is whether the prime minister and the Sangh Parivar (which he must bring along) are prepared to do what is needed to realize this goal.
Few people today know that the idea that India should become one of the poles of a multipolar world was first seriously championed by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
This idea was a natural outgrowth of Hindu nationalist thought, which saw international politics as exemplifying the law of the jungle—a domain where might makes right. This world view led early Jana Sangh leaders like Syama Prasad Mookerjee and K.R. Malkani to call for a “realistic" foreign policy. They criticized non-alignment on the grounds that rather than steer clear of international power politics, India ought to vigorously build alliances to safeguard its interests. By revealing how few friends India had, the 1962 war vindicated the Jana Sangh’s view.
The 1962 war also vindicated a harder line. This was the warning that friendship was a poor substitute for strength. M.S. Golwalkar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’) charismatic leader, pressed the point in his inimitable way, telling the story of a dwarf and a giant that formed an alliance to defeat an evil king. By the end of the story, the giant had won riches, empire and the hand of a princess, while the dwarf had lost an eye, a hand and a foot. The worry that it was unwise to depend on others prompted the Hindu Mahasabha, and later the Jana Sangh, to press for the rapid development of India’s military capabilities, including a nuclear deterrent.
These legacies reveal two paths to becoming a leading power—building alliances and developing capabilities. Why has Prime Minister Modi expended so much energy on the former and so little on the latter? Why so many air miles but so little hard power? The answer may lie in a paradox at the very heart of the Sangh Parivar’s thinking.
For two centuries now, Hindu nationalists have puzzled over why India’s glorious civilization was overrun. Broadly, they have given two answers.
One side, extending from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee onwards to Aurobindo Ghose and reaching its apogee in Vinayak Savarkar, held that Hindus lacked material strength. Hence, it counselled learning from those who were stronger, be it England or Japan. Who today in the Sangh Parivar knows that in his masterpiece Dharmatattva, Chatterjee invited Hindus to eat beef and drink wine, should this aid them on the battlefield?
The other side, ranging from Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayanand to Har Bilas Sarda and K.B. Hedgewar, took the view that Hindus lacked unity and self-confidence. Hence they built social organizations to further communal solidarity and glorified Hindu achievements, especially on the cultural plane. This quest to decolonize the Hindu mind prompted suspicion of foreign influences.
Modi’s favourite philosopher, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, embodied this divided history. Upadhyay readily acknowledged the need to build up India’s military capabilities. Those who thought India could be defended “simply by clever manipulations of foreign policy", he wrote after 1962, were “living in a world of unreality".
At the same time Upadhyay championed “Integral Humanism", which constitutes the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) “basic philosophy". This doctrine holds that India has more to teach than to learn from the world because, unlike the West, which prioritizes the material over the social and the spiritual, Hinduism understands that the good life is the “integrated life"—a life that fulfils the plurality of human needs and aspirations.
Integral Humanism is a bold and sublime vision. But its unease with gross materialism makes it difficult for Upadhyay’s followers to embrace the growth and development needed to strengthen India’s military and economic capabilities. This discomfort explains why only a few decades ago—when the Asian Tigers were growing rapidly—the BJP was fiercely opposing computerization and championing village industries.
This history may shed light on why Modi has not employed his political power to undertake the reforms needed to fundamentally alter India’s trajectory or even to discipline the obscurantists in his ranks. The fact is that for all its virtues, which include being relatively free of the parasites of dynastic succession and corruption, the Sangh Parivar remains hostile to the modernization and rationalism required to make India materially strong. Under its tutelage, India is set to be less a leading power and more a pleading power, and the prime minister a malnourished Bismarck pinning his hopes on allies whose greed for hegemony may well cost India an eye, hand, and foot.
The need of the hour then is self-evident. India cannot become a pole so long as it remains poles apart from the leading powers. To become a leading power, India needs to fundamentally overhaul its state, society and economy, making them more efficient, less divided, and more developed, respectively. A radical transformation of this kind requires political power no doubt, but beyond that it requires clarity of vision and purpose.
When the world changes, you have to change with it or be left behind. This is the iron law of history from which no person or party is immune, howsoever noble its motives. Modi has many virtues: grit, discipline, and intelligence. These have secured him political power. But if he wants to leave more than a record of travels, he must employ this power to make another India. This mission calls for a no-nonsense pragmatism that the Sangh Parivar will not appreciate—unless maybe it too sees the writing on the wall.
Rahul Sagar is global network associate professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi.