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A Naga Sadhu or a Hindu holy man is covered in ashes as he participates in a procession before the second "Shahi Snan" (grand bath) at "Kumbh Mela" or the Pitcher Festival, in Prayagraj, previously known as Allahabad, India, February 4, 2019..(Photo by: ADNAN ABIDI/ REUTERS)
Modi’s outreach: Identity and realist foreign policy
This model of governance for more than 70 years with the Indian National Congress Party had left the electorate aching for a change from both the policy and the Nehruvian dynasty.
In 1950, India became a republic headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, a silver-tongued orator, one with a fine command of the English language and part of the Cambridge mold. The constitution was written by B.R. Ambedkar, a man who preferred a suit to traditional Indian garb and had his intellect trimmed at Columbia University in the United States. Unquestionably, India’s founding members and their Western cultural influences have significantly helped to shape its identity.

However, an independent republic did not actually mean social cohesion nor freedom for all. India was still grappling with princely states and there were fresh wounds, like that of the partition. In order to mend fences within the nation and abroad, India’s first prime minister, Nehru, took on a socio-capitalist model wherein a large number of industries were state-owned and operated with little room for private sector participation. Politically, Nehru’s approach was of a pacifist, keen on not having bad blood between neighbors, at least not any more than that which had already prevailed.

This model of governance for more than 70 years with the Indian National Congress Party had left the electorate aching for a change from both the policy and the Nehruvian dynasty. Systemic corruption, bureaucracy, nepotism and most importantly, India’s identity being limited to a former colony of the British Empire exacerbated the pains of the common man.

“Bharat” under Modi

and changing relationships

More than 70 years into independence, India under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership seems to be establishing its countenance. A humble man who has his chai piping hot and his food meatless seems to have resonated with a billion-plus population. His persona is a breath of fresh air for a populace that is used to its leaders orating in English and taking pride in their Western cultural influences. This has aided Modi’s ambitions of reviving India’s historical roots and connections to those countries with whom India has a shared history and culture.

Samuel P. Huntington, in his book Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, put forth the argument that the world of the future would face a clash along civilizational lines, and growing democracies like India would look to align themselves with the West.

Modi has picked up Huntington’s playbook in part, while also diverging from it by proselytizing the Eastern dictum of “Modernizing without Westernizing.” Since independence, India chose allies and foes based on the electorate’s sentiment and even took a stance of nonalignment during the Cold War, matching its socio-capitalist economic model, i.e. capitalism from the United States and socialism from the former Soviet Union. In order to appease the Muslim voting bloc, the Indian National Congress pursued a nonaligned strategy even with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

With elections looming in April 2019, Modi’s term in office has changed India’s conventional alliances. India’s foreign policy shed its non-alignment when its prime minister visited Jerusalem in 2017, skipping Ramallah. The protocol for previous state level visits was to travel to both the capitals of Israel and Palestine. This is a clear sign of changing geopolitical priorities.

Modi, with probably the most stamps on his passport of any Indian prime minister, has pursued civilizational outreach as a way to foster friendships. Modi’s “Act East” policy of forging stronger ties with ASEAN countries and his welcoming reception to foreign leaders in his home state of Gujarat, combined with his trip to Israel, is evidence that India has come of age and intends to play a larger role in the world. It plans to pursue this agenda through a Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist civilizational triangle, i.e. forging deeper ties through religion, culture and shared values.

Modi’s visits to Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, Japan and Russia between 2014 and 2017, and the International Solar Alliance are further symbolic of this intent. Modi’s embrace of yoga, bringing it to four corners of the world with Yoga Day and branding it as a symbol of India, has enhanced the country’s identity from being narrowly viewed to the land of the Taj Mahal – built by a 17th century Mughal ruler – to a broader, more contemporary and outward-looking nation.

Can nationalism and

multilateralism work together?

Modi’s initiatives are nationalistic, though nationalism in the case of India, a former colony, is one of decolonizing the Indian mindset and taking pride in its rich heritage. 

One such effort was the statue of one of India’s pioneers – Vallabhai Patel. In October 2018, the “Statue of Unity” was unveiled by Modi to celebrate India’s first deputy prime minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and his contribution to the nation’s unity. It is worth noting that even though Patel was a member of the Indian National Congress, his views made him more of a realist than the pacifist prime minister to whom he was reporting. His skepticism toward China and his regrets over the lack of support from India’s side to the Tibetan cause made him one of India’s early realist thinkers.

While Modi’s initiatives are nationalistic, his commitment to international treaties and multilateralism has not wavered. A signatory to the Paris climate agreement and other multilateral accords, Modi’s India has spoken highly of international courts of justice and has voiced its support for the judgments on the South China Sea dispute. Even its apprehension in committing to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit can be attributed to its strong stance on Chinese trade practices and not an aversion to free trade. The primary fear for Indian industry has been China’s enhanced market access to India, resulting in a ballooning trade deficit with the communist nation.

India’s “Act East” policy has gained momentum and with Modi’s actions, the cloud has cleared around India’s strategic and civilizational allies. Modi has engaged partners around the globe while driving a hard line for Indian interests, ensuring it has a prominent voice on the global stage.

The question will be whether the Judeo-Christian West will ally with the Judeo-Hindu-Buddhist civilization of the East that Modi seeks to build, under shared values of democracy and sovereignty. Modi’s commitment to broadening India’s identity through his party’s nationalistic fervor has not limited his foreign policy objectives. The commitment to multilateralism abroad and nationalism at home do not need to be mutually exclusive. Modi’s India is a case in point.

The writer is a foreign policy analyst based out of New York. He has conducted extensive research on the political and economic environments of the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on South Asia. He has worked for premier risk consulting and nonprofits in New York City.

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