Indian Elections: Rhetoric, Not Foreign Policy

Even if it may not lead to any radical shift in India’s foreign policy, Narendra Modi’s rhetoric can’t be ignored. His commentary on India’s foreign policy may be indicative of the domestic priorities of a future BJP government, and how that may relate to the rest of the world.

Posted on 03/20/14
By Varghese K. George | Via The Hindu
Party flags of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena on display at a BJP rally in the western Indian city of Mumbai. (Photo by Al Jazeera, English, Creative Commons License)
Party flags of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena on display at a BJP rally in the western Indian city of Mumbai. (Photo by Al Jazeera, English, Creative Commons License)

Holding forth on India’s foreign policy in the context of the country’s historical, commercial and cultural links with the rest of the world, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, once related an experience that he had had in Russia. “I asked for some tea, a request that my hosts did not understand. But as soon as I mentioned chai, they served it immediately,” he said, in the course of the Nani A. Palkhivala Memorial lecture in Chennai on October 18, 2013. That lecture has been, thus far, the only full-fledged enunciation of his foreign policy ideas. “Those were the kind of relations that our forefathers had with the rest of the world,” said Mr. Modi, speaking on the topic “India and the World.”


While the subcontinent’s historical trade links with the rest of the world might have resulted in various cultural exchanges, Mr. Modi’s “chai” example didn’t quite fit in. The BJP leader almost made it sound as if the Russians had borrowed the word “chai” from India, a declaration that earned him huge applause at the lecture. One wonders though, whether Mr. Modi was really unaware of the history of the beverage — it is from the Mandarin word “Cha,” that “chai,” and other similar sounding words for tea in various languages including Indian, have been derived. The word “tea” also has its origins in China, its homeland.


But, Mr. Modi failed to mention China while speaking about chai, though he did make a series of references at the lecture to China as a threat and an adversary, and later, at an election rally in Arunachal Pradesh on February 22, 2014. According to Mr. Modi, China is an “expansionist” power and the Congress government’s response to it has been “timid.”


On neighbors, Pakistan and China

Mr. Modi’s belligerent rhetoric, however, is unlikely to lead to any hostile policy toward China in the event of his becoming India’s prime minister, as political commentator Ashok Malik wrote in his recent article on On the contrary, China has already feted Mr. Modi as an “honorable guest,” in 2011; commercial links between Gujarat and China run deep, and, Mr. Modi, who is clear that India’s commercial interests will guide his foreign policy priorities, is unlikely to disrupt that. That economic interests will guide strategic policy, however, is not an original thought in a globalized world; outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has always placed emphasis on that, including during the time when he pushed the nuclear deal with the U.S.


Even if it may not lead to any radical shift in India’s foreign policy, Mr. Modi’s rhetoric on the issue can’t be ignored. His commentary on India’s foreign policy may be indicative of the domestic priorities of a future BJP government, and if one were to go by the previous BJP governments’ track record on the issue, how that may relate to the rest of the world.


Modi's hardline on foreign policy cannot be ignored. (Creative Commons License)
Modi’s hardline on foreign policy cannot be ignored. (Creative Commons License)

Mr. Modi had also made controversial statements on India’s relations with another of its neighbors — Pakistan. In the 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections, for instance, “Mian Musharaff” was a recurring theme in Mr. Modi’s speeches. Later, in 2012, he accused the Manmohan Singh government of “giving away” India’s territory to Pakistan in the Rann of Kutch, an allegation that was based on a news report that both countries were closer to a deal on the dispute.


There is an underlying political theme in Mr. Modi’s statements on foreign policy, which is designed to target his domestic constituency and project him as a Hindu leader. This is, indeed, in line with the BJP’s legacy on this issue.


“The world is divided into two camps today. Those who support terrorism and those who oppose it,” he said at the Palkhivala lecture. The controversial implications of this hardline stance do not need to be elaborated.


In the same lecture, he also advocated that individual States in India could be encouraged to establish special relationships with foreign countries. The pairs he proposed were: Puducherry and France; Goa and Portugal. Mr. Modi presented this as a game-changing idea in diplomacy, and it may indeed be so. But for that idea to be a game-changer, the more relevant suggestions could have been Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab with Pakistan, West Bengal with Bangladesh, and Tamil Nadu with Sri Lanka. If these States are encouraged to develop special relations with their immediate neighbors, that would indeed change India’s neighborhood. But, Mr. Modi did not mention any of these. In the case of Bangladesh, far from promoting any special relationship, his party has blocked a border agreement on trivial grounds. He has not said anything on the repeated suggestions from his own ally in Punjab, the Akali Dal, that India must promote more trade with Pakistan. Therefore, what he omits is equally significant — like excluding China while talking of chai as a common thread between India and Russia.


Not that Mr. Modi has always been subtle. On February 22, speaking in Silchar in Assam, Mr. Modi made a distinction between Hindus and Muslims while talking of migrants from Bangladesh. He said it was India’s duty to protect Hindu migrants, but added that “other migrants” were crossing over to India as part of a “vote bank conspiracy” of the Congress.


Invoking the ‘Other’

The emphasis on culture and civilization in the BJP’s foreign policy articulation is rather evident over the years, including when the party was in power. While cultural linkages are a tool of soft power in international diplomacy, constant invocation of culture and civilization in the context of foreign policy and the suggestion — sometimes oblique, and at other times, open — that the Indian civilization is in an inevitable and continuous clash with certain “Others,” is worrisome.


To understand why Mr. Modi emphasizes certain factors and ignores others while talking of external relations, one could well turn to the former U.S. diplomat Strobe Talbott’s account of his talks with BJP leader Jaswant Singh when the party was in power and was trying to repair India’s relations with the U.S. after the 1998 nuclear explosion.


Jaswant Singh has remained India's finance, external affairs and defense minister.
Jaswant Singh has remained India’s finance, external affairs and defense minister.

“No one has had as much experience with Islam as India. You must work with us more in waging our common struggle against these forces,” Mr. Singh told Mr. Talbott, the latter says in his book Engaging India.


Despite being overall a flattering account of Mr. Jaswant Singh, Mr. Talbott comments: “I also found troublesome, the way Islam fits into Jaswant’s worldview — or, more to the point, the way it seemed inherently at odds with his concept of Hindu civilization .…. Hinduism over the millennia, had proved itself absorptive and hospitable, while Islam was all about conquest and conversion by the sword … This sort of invidious oversimplification of Islam was — and would continue to be in the years that followed — an all-too-common feature of one side in the worldwide debate over the religious and cultural roots of terrorism. What concerned me, in hearing it from Jaswant, was what it implied about the BJP’s ideology and therefore about the party’s approach to governance. If someone as sophisticated as Jaswant saw Islam this way, it meant that there were surely many who held more primitive and virulent forms of this view.”


The other pitch made by Mr. Singh to Mr. Talbott was about offering India as an ally in containing China. Both these ideas — an alliance against Islam and China — did not seem very attractive to the Clinton administration which had been careful not to buy into the “clash of civilizations” theory and instead, wanted to work alongside China.


To his credit, Mr. Vajpayee did his bit to improve relations with China, but that does not take away from the fact that his government viewed China as a “civilizational enemy.” His defense minister George Fernandes termed China as “enemy number one.”


Therefore, while it is safe to conclude that India’s strategic policy under Mr. Modi would be in continuation of Dr. Singh’s “economy first” approach, it would be naive to ignore the cultural preoccupation that may guide it. And more importantly, the ways in which it would be projected domestically.


This article first appeared in The Hindu. The writer can be reached at

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