A cohesive vision for India

Foreign policy cannot be separated from domestic politics

 

Despite the unnecessarily self-inflicted damages caused by the irresponsible statements and reprehensible misdeeds of the so-called lunatic fringe of the ruling BJP to the development-minded image of the government, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi still has enormous political capital to his credit. Needless to say that he has a grand vision — a new strategic worldview — and is attempting to take the smart steps necessary to bring that vision to fruition. While a new wave of optimistic predictions about the imminent rise of Indian power under the tutelage of Narendra Modi have grown in prominence ever since his resounding victory in last year’s general elections, it is relevant to discuss the vision of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

More often than not, strategic vision or grand strategy is about securing national interests. Most of it is obviously in the realm of foreign policy, but no grand strategy can be sustainable without a vision for peaceful internal order and economic strength. Thus, strategic visions should be read in diplomatic and military terms as well as in political-economic, political-social and political-cultural terms. The consistency of the strategic vision of a nation depends on how well harmonised is its foreign policy with its domestic priorities.

As is well known, the anti-imperialism propagated and practiced by the Congress party in India’s national freedom struggle became the dominant paradigm of India’s external engagement after independence in 1947. According to Nehru, pursuit of ‘strategic autonomy’ and economic self-reliance could ensure security to India in a world dominated by imperial powers. Nahru, who was the most important decision-maker and opinion-shaper of India’s foreign policy, singlehandedly fashioned the strategic vision of not only the Congress party but also the bureaucracies and the not-so-powerful opposition during his time. It was no accident that in Nehru’s time, India exponentially increased its involvement in global affairs primarily because it projected itself as an impartial champion of settlement of international conflicts by peaceful means. Although, critics may rightly argue that such involvement was based more on moral sentimentalism than any cool-headed realism. However, this “soft power” strategy adopted by Nehru was the most credible substitute for “hard power” as India concentrated on the task of building its economic capabilities as well as institutionalising democracy for the attainment of socio-economic justice and progressive social change. Just as the creation of an independent Indian venture as a whole depended on a sense of vision, so too did the development of its foreign policy. Nehru provided this vision during his lifetime and beyond.

The efforts of some elements in the ruling combine to energise domestic politics with a monolithic Hindutva identity and the promise of a more decisive foreign policy befitting an emerging power will face the greatest challenge from the diversity of opinions, as well as religious, linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity of India

Majority of Indian voters overwhelmingly voted last May to create a new vision for India in the twenty first century. As the end of the Cold War has already rendered most of the tenets of Nehruvian non-alignment obsolescent, Indian policymakers have been in constant search of a new vision in order to guide India’s march to great-power status. It is in the midst of this uncertainty that Indians should attempt to relate the profound meaning of Nehruvian vision of ‘strategic autonomy’ to our domestic politics: that Indians are too diverse to be boxed into a single ideological framework inspired by a single religious belief.

The efforts of some elements in the ruling combine to energise domestic politics with a monolithic Hindutva identity and the promise of a more decisive foreign policy befitting an emerging power will face the greatest challenge from the diversity of opinions, as well as religious, linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity of India. Nobody can deny this fundamental reality that a strategic vision unaccompanied by an ideological and moral guide might degenerate into crass hyperrealism. Nehru’s vision of a democratic, secular and tolerant India is timeless and truly representative of India’s civilisational values, which could only be challenged with grave risks for India’s very existence. US President Barack Obama’s emphasis, during his recent three days dazzling visit to India, on the need of religious tolerance has indicated just that.

Anthony D. Smith, internationally renowned scholar of Nationalism, has defined nationalism “as an ideological movement to attain and maintain autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population, some of whose members believe it to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’. Nationalism is not simply a shared sentiment or consciousness… It is an active movement inspired by an ideology and symbolism of the nation”. Nehru should be given credit for ‘secular-nationalist’ construction of India’s national identity. Under Nehru, India moved increasingly onward in its consolidation of a legitimately functioning constitutional democracy, and redirected its national energy toward secularisation of society and modernisation of industry. Despite many persisting challenges in some social aspects including education, health and human development, India’s transformation into a modern, secular and democratic state has invested its citizens with a patriotic self-confidence. If political ideology of India’s ruling party remains hostile to diversity, there are reasons to suspect that Indian patriotism might degenerate into intolerant, aggressive nationalism.

Almost seven decades following the initiation of their unprecedented effort at social modernisation and economic transformation based on the rationalist principles, it will be philosophically demeaning and intellectually perfidious for Indians to remain passive when attempts are being made to guide Indian people to a direction fraught with undesirable consequences. And that contributes to the risk of India either sliding back toward a more assertive Hindu political identity that would generate a fundamentalist revival or succumbing to some variety of majoritarian nationalism or democratic authoritarianism, as is being witnessed in neighbouring Pakistan. This could breed more public frustration and create more pressure on the government if its policies fail to deliver immediately, which could hurt India’s domestic political balance, as well as its foreign relations.

Only a drastically revamped Hindutva strategic vision, which is faithful to India’s pluralistic multi-religious and multicultural fabric, can provide an overwhelming assurance of security to Indians

Foreign policies are almost always related to how things are happening at home. The pursuit of a grand external strategy does not mean dismantling the internal social cohesion upon which rests the whole edifice of the state and its institutions. The fact that Modi represents a government with a massive majority in Parliament has made him doubly capable of taking hard decisions unlike his predecessor. After allowing his initial foreign policy successes to be tarnished by outrageous utterances of radical Hindutva elements and ill-advised proselytisation enthusiasts, Modi has finally spoken loudly against communalism. Speaking in the Parliament while replying to a debate on President’s Address, he asserted: “My government’s only religion is ‘India first’, my government’s only religious book is ‘Indian Constitution’, our only devotion is ‘Bharat Bhakti’ and our only prayer is ‘welfare of all’.” Reassuring sceptics that he will firmly implement what he has promised must be part of Modi’s concerted effort to place religious tolerance at the forefront of India’s national vision.

Foreign policy cannot be separated from domestic politics, and any strategic vision entirely premised on grandness in international relations while failing to factor in the imperatives underpinning the domestic political tranquillity is most likely to be a doomed project in the long run. Any exclusivist political project either based on racial-cultural purity or excessive religious pride finally ends up being the danger to global peace.

Given his undisputed position within the party and the government, Prime Minister Modi bears a huge responsibility for articulating and acting on the principles and values that bind all Indians into a coherent whole. What William Hague, the British Secretary, said in 2010 must become the strategic template for the Modi government: “We cannot achieve long term security and prosperity unless we uphold our values.”

Only a drastically revamped Hindutva strategic vision, which is faithful to India’s pluralistic multi-religious and multicultural fabric, can provide an overwhelming assurance of security to Indians. This task will require visionary political leadership, an honest appraisal of the challenges India faces, and recognition that the dark and grey sides of the Hindutva cannot be wished away, and that development is the only measure of economic prosperity and national power. The question now is not whether the influence of the Hindu Right will keep growing or reducing. The question is will the Hindutva groups continue to discredit themselves as well as India in their over-zealous attempts to redefine India’s identity and its strategic vision, because simple solutions are never the best ones?

Dr Vinay Kaura

The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, SP Police University, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.



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