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The “Hindutva Face” of Foreign Policy? Reflections on Indian Foreign Policy 2014-19

Arndt Michael
April 8, 2019

Shortly before the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi—at that time practically a novice in foreign affairs—stated in an interview that “my Hindutva face will be an asset when dealing with foreign affairs with other nations.” This statement might have been indicative of a strict ideological, assertive foreign policy posture that put India first in all her future engagements. Yet, an analysis of five years of National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) foreign policy only reveals changes in direction and scope, but no traits of strict adherence to a genuine Hindutva ideology, or any ideology for that matter.

As for Hindutva, the term was first coined by V. D. Savarkar in 1923. It propagated an ideology of a pure Hindu rashtra, or nation, demanding political and cultural unity among Hindus, with Muslims considered anti-national. Two years later, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant volunteer organization, came into existence. Its main objectives were Hindu patriotism and a Hindu national home. For the RSS, Hindus and Muslims were basically two opposing nationalities. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political wing of the RSS and Narendra Modi, an RSS member. In the BJP Election Manifesto 2014, published shortly before the 2014 elections, the party did not use the term “Hindutva foreign policy” and dealt with international affairs in three pages only. The wish to “reboot and reorient” foreign policy was expressed, as were, inter alia, the strengthening of Indian soft power or the establishment of a new web of alliances.

Taking a bird’s eye view of select bilateral and multilateral foreign policy developments from 2014-19, it is obvious that Prime Minister Modi has been much more visible and outspoken and travelled more than any of his predecessors. He visited several countries that had not witnessed visits by Indian Prime Ministers in decades; for example both Canada and the UAE in 2015. Looking at the immediate neighborhood in South Asia, the inviting of Modi’s South Asian counterparts to the swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 hinted at a strong focus toward India’s neighbors and created expectations toward closer bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Modi’s first visit to Sri Lanka in 2015 seemed like a harbinger of things to come, successfully stressing future cooperation and cultural unity. However, the relationship has suffered since then, especially because of Sri Lanka’s decision to lease the port of Hambantota to China, effectively allowing a 99-year Chinese presence on the island. The Maldives, despite Indian overtures, still ratified a free trade agreement with China (as did Pakistan) and with Nepal, despite Modi’s initial outreach and support after the earthquake in 2015; the country’s new federal constitution of 2015 led to a dramatic worsening of bilateral ties. All in all, countries in India’s immediate neighborhood have been successfully incorporated into China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR)-Initiative, with an adequate Indian response still at large.

As for Pakistan, the relationship initially saw the same kinds of ups (Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015) and downs (attacks by Pakistan-backed terrorists in Kashmir; regular and deadly skirmishes along the Line of Control) that previous governments experienced. As of 2019, relations with Pakistan have reached a low point. However, surgical strikes and the use of the Indian air force to target terror camps inside Pakistani territory show a new, assertive foreign policy stance toward Pakistan.

Overall, with respect to its immediate neighborhood, the Modi government has followed a course of policy continuity, except for Pakistan. As for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), there has only been one summit in the past five years, and progress has stalled especially in the face of Indo-Pak enmity.

The Modi government has reached out to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) more than previous Indian governments, with Modi visiting Mauritius and the Seychelles, in addition to an increased engagement with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IROA). Modi updated Indian policies toward Southeast Asia, which resulted in the Act East-Policy (AEP), a new version of the Look East-Policy of the 1990s.

Next to Pakistan, it is with regard to China that Indian foreign policy has seen the most dramatic changes. Despite highly promising signs of cooperation in the beginning, the bilateral political relationship has not flourished. India did have a much more pronounced foreign policy regarding Indo-Chinese border issues, yet a brief stand-off at Doklam marked the low-point of Indo-Sino engagement. India subsequently did not attend the Belt and Road Forum, citing grave concerns over the building of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, Modi did hold an informal summit with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan 2018 to work on better ties with China.

Conversely, the US-India relationship has seen a deepening of ties, especially both the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement(LEMOA)from 2016, aimed at facilitating logistical support and services between both militaries, followed by the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 to facilitate access to advanced defense systems showcase that this crucial strategic partnership has grown in depth.

While India’s relationship with Russia saw a downturn, ties with Japan saw an upswing. In 2014, Japan and India entered into a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” and significant progress in the areas of infrastructure cooperation or nuclear energy and technology have taken place. India has also built stronger links with the gulf countries and fully normalized its bilateral ties with Israel. As a first and clear sign of India’s new standing, India was invited to address the inaugural session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in March 2019, and India’s new outreach to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is bound to bring political and economic benefits, with India already as a major customer of Gulf oil.

In multilateral settings, India started to engage in the quadrilateral (Quad), a grouping that also includes the US, Japan, and Australia. Despite repeated attempts, India was eventually denied entry into global governance platforms such as the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group or the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However, on India’s appeal, the UN introduced the worldwide International Yoga Day (June 21). The latter, especially, was heralded as a new sign of global Indian outreach. And finally, connecting with the Indian diaspora in countries around the world has been an important objective for the NDA government.

Indian foreign policy has not seen a complete or radical transformation in terms of becoming a “new” Hindutva-guided foreign policy. Modi did try to connect foreign policy with Indian values by stressing civilizational and religious ties with South and Southeast Asia and by focusing on yoga and especially the Indian diaspora. Still, there was, in fact, continuity in India’s relationship with great powers and her extended neighborhood. What is more, India’s new assertive posture toward both Pakistan and China and a host of new strategic partnerships—such as the ones with Saudi Arabia and UAE—are actually indicators of a new foreign policy pragmatism. A Hindutva foreign policy, then, faced with a myriad of geopolitical and geo-economic necessities, as it was in the past five years, simply did not lend itself to becoming a new Indian foreign policy orientation or grand strategy, all rhetoric aside. Instead, pragmatism has clearly eclipsed Hindutva.

Arndt Michael, Department of Political Science, University of Freiburg (Germany), is the author of the multi-award-winning book India’s Foreign Policy and Regional Multilateralism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and co-editor of Indian Verstehen (Understanding India, Springer 2016). His articles have been published, inter alia, in Harvard Asia Quarterly, India Quarterly, India Review, and Asian Security.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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