Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led India on the world stage for the last four years. Now in the last year of his term, how to you assess his achievements and the trajectory of his foreign policy?
Andersen: Like most national foreign policies which have constraints, India’s foreign policy has been evolving. There wasn’t a sudden break when Modi came into power. He built on what was done by previous Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and those after him.
However, Modi definitely has an “Look/Act East” approach to foreign policy that has long been the orientation of Hindu nationalists – where the East has been the region of compatibility and the West a source of invasion, colonialism etc. This orientation goes back some time, including for example a favorability toward Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905—and the choice of Japan and Japanese universities as havens in the first decades after 1900. This orientation first had its formal shape in the administration of Narasimha Rao and his finance minister (and later prime minister) Manmohan Singh. Modi took it a bit further by developing a close relationship with Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia. At the same time, he oversaw a deepening of economic ties with China, which he visited several times as chief minister of Gujarat and then as prime minister. In the Asian context, it is the “east” that is a major source of technology, investment funds and trade that India seeks.
Indian foreign policy under Modi inherited a situation that shaped his own policies – such as the end of the Cold War and market oriented economic reforms – occurring simultaneously in the early 1990s — that forced India to look outward after decades of looking inward. The first (end of the Cold War) strengthened security and the second (market reforms) significantly improved the economy. With objective of boosting the sluggish economy (which one prominent Indian economist sarcastically called “the Hindu rate of growth”), India now had to look for trade expansion, technology, foreign investments, etc., something you see from the time of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s and later espoused by Modi and implemented by his brilliant foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar. The era of inward looking was over, as witnessed by Modi’s many highly publicized overseas visits.
India after the early 1990s (and Modi now) took a foreign policy stance very similar to what the Chinese did after their economic reforms began in the late 1970s, that is shaping foreign policy in ways to grow the economy on the assumption that a strong economy is not only good domestic politics but good for the country[‘s influence on the world stage and in its immediate neighborhood.
What about the more pro-West, pro-Israel policy that Modi seems to have intensified?
Yes, he has intensified it, but he also sees the importance of keeping good relations with the Middle East at the same time as he has tried to keep India out of the developing Iran-Saudi Arabia divide which in some ways is a current expression of the much older Shia-Sunni divide in that region. So he has carefully treaded that path and veered away also from the U.S.-Iran confrontation and even supported Iran in some instances. For example, his government has explicitly rejected imposing sanctions on Iran after the US announced it would do so.
So his is not just a pro-Israeli policy but also a balancing policy that factors in Arab interests. India has never played a zero-sum game in dealing with the region. That said, India has significantly increased its economic relationship with Israel, but there are at the same time limits that factor in Arab interests. India for example has not rejected the Palestinian Homeland demand, it has never dumped them and even now continues to push for a moderate Palestinian state.
You have been spending time in China over the past several years teaching at a prominent University in Shanghai. What about Modi’s conduct of the China relationship?
The most important aspect of India’s relationship with China is also driven by economics. And one should look at this in the context of his support of globalization and the lowering of trade barriers, though there is opposition to this both by the far left and far right—for different reasons . Consider for example Modi’s speech at Davos earlier this year espousing globalization where he matched Chinese Primier Xi Jinping’s speech the previous there also taking a strong stand for globalization.
How do you view Modi’s world outlook?
As you look at some of his speeches — Modi sees India’s place in the world as depending on the strength of India’s economy. In South Asia, India has wanted to be the prime player for a long time and in some fundamental ways that depends on the strength of the economy.
India in part lost influence internationally and its own region due to an anemic economy from the 1950s to the early 1990s which generated domestic frustration—and a certain contempt as a country that was a messy democracy unable effectively to tackle poverty and provide jobs to the tens of thousands of people who came on the job market each month.
This malaise began to change significantly under Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister (and later Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh, wjho launched far-reaching economic reforms that had a significant impact on the economy. At the same time, it reached out to countries that could help it economically, like Japan, the US and Australia, all fellow democracies with whom it had previously had sour relations.
What are the other issues impacting Modi’s foreign policy?
While foreign policy is driven by notions of building a strong economy, he is a nationalist firmly committed to India’s territorial integrity. He is willing to take risks to defend India against external threats. India does not have a claim outside its waters but it is willing to take strong steps under Modi to protect those. Hence the stand on Doklam at the trijunction of India-Bhutan-China where he took a very strong stand to defend Indian security interests by opposing Chinese construction of a road allegedly on Bhutanese territory that would threaten India and its access to the resource rich northeast of the country.
From your time spent in China, what is your impression of the Chinese view of India?
The Chinese scholars I interact with at Tungji University in Shanghai tell me they respect three aspects of a country’s foreign policy — one is “clarity of vision”; the other is strength; the third is non-interference. And in all three areas, Modi has in their view done well, though they are concerned by what they see as a gradual drift of India closer to the US and Japan, witnessed by increased military exercise, a more robust military supply relationship.
Another element in India’s response to China is growing Chinese assertiveness especially in the South China Sea but also in its growing ties with Pakistan. It is not that India will sign a military pact with the US, Japan or Australia. It will not as India remains committed to strategic autonomy. India would not participate in an effort to box in China – and expects China to avoid similar moves toward India.
Let’s switch to India’s domestic politics and Prime Minister Modi’s relationship to his party and the RSS. Your first book on the RSS was in 1988, and now your next one is to be released in August. What drives the relationship between Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party, and the RSS and what changes has the RSS undergone over the decades?
Most writing on the RSS has been decidedly pro or anti often with an unstated agenda on one side or the other. The exceptions are the writings of the late Suzanne and Lloyd Rudolph, who were my advisors at The University of Chicago and who helped shape my views on India and how to write about it.
On changes in the RSS since the first book. “The Brotherhood in Saffron” which was written some 25 years ago, the changes have been significant. This is not surprising for an organization as vast as that of the RSS and its thirty six affiliates; its is evolving to reflect the fact of its rapid growth since then and the penetration into all parts of Indian society by its affiliates. For one thing, it has become more inclusive. Christians and Muslims now participate in its activities. This does not mean that these two groups have abandoned their suspicions regarding the premier Hindu nationalist organization in India.
Perhaps the most significant development is the growth both in the number of affiliates and increased activities. The expansion of RSS affiliates is reflected in fact that India’s largest labor union is its affiliate, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the country’s largest student group is the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and affiliated to it is by far the largest private school system in India with several million students enrolled. On top of all this is that the RSS and its affiliates manage some 160,000 service projects around the country.
Then there are the RSS-related organizations in 34 to 40 countries.
Does any of this growth of RSS have to do with Modi’s rise in power?
To an extent. His impact on the expansion of the RSS is probably more now as PM than over the many years that he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. But he is his own man, for example, he is for globalization, which is not enthusiastically supported by the RSS and its labor-oriented affiliates.
On a side-note, the interesting thing about RSS is that it does not interfere in the workings of its affiliated organizations, which probably explains the ability of these disparate institutions to remain within the RSS “family”. Increasingly, a major function of the RSS is to mediate disputes within and among these affiliates. It continues its training activities through shakas (local meeting units) to build a cadre of men who, on the basis of their perfected selves, would play an influential role in the rejuvenation of India. Modi went through the RSS training system and rose to its highest ranks as a full time worker, referred to as pracharak. He stood out as a brilliant organizer, which brought him to the attention of leaders in the RSS’s political affiliate, the Bhartiya Janata Party. His assertiveness however also irritated many in an organization that values collegiality and a focus on the group.
But Modi’s interaction with the RSS gets complicated. The RSS provided a kind of home for Modi, who was from a poor family and searched for a path to make a contribution to his country. He was always a nationalist, and he opted to operate through the agency of the RSS to carry out what he saw as his mission. And he respects the RSS for that. As to his current relationship with the RSS, Modi gets along well with RSS head Mohan Bhagwat. But the RSS is not the BJP despite much current opinion on the subject, and it does not want either to be like the BJP or take it over. The RSS views its goal of building a sound structure of bottom-up influence as much more effective over the long run than what the government and its top-down approach can do. At the same time, it needs the BJP to protect it from restrictions on its activities and many of its affiliates seek favorable government policies to strengthen what they do.
There is certainly some daylight between the RSS and the BJP on economic issues. The RSS has always been Center-Left. For example, it is suspicious of foreign direct investment as introducing foreign influence, cultural and economic. In a 2017 speech, for example, Mohan Bhagwat criticized the Modi government for not looking after the poor, the farmers etc., and that foreign economists were being brought to the decision-making table in ways that weakened the country.
Current polling on political attitudes suggests that Bhagwat was on to something – That somehow a sense that the Modi government has not done as much for rural India. While Modi remains the most popular political figure in polls, his popularity and that of his party has declined.
However the macro-economic results are not bad. The economy is growing at 7.50 percent – many countries would give their right arm for that kind of growth. But India’s needs are so great – how to create the many jobs for the growing workforce is the elephant in the room – and the government has fallen short on that vital factor.
How is the domestic political scene panning out right now, a year away from the 2019 elections?
Modi at this point still seems most likely to be the next prime minister following the 2019 parliamentary elections and the BJP, while it might not get a majority, seems likely to emerge as the largest single party. On a negative side, the BJP (and the RSS) still have a way to go to live down the image of intolerance. The victory of Modi and the growth and expansion of the RSS, has created an environment of empowerment of the radical right, which is not what the leadership of both seek because the respective leaderships realize that the radical surge from the right is a danger to the RSS, and to Modi.
With both Modi and Bhagwat, realpolitik enters their calculations on how to respond to this assault from the right. The BJP and to a lesser extent the RSS has come to resemble the Congress party with a right, a center and a left, with the larger part on the right. For instance, much of the base thinks beef consumption should be given up, while others in RSS don’t, and in fact say, “We should get out of the kitchen.”
Within the RSS, there’s a lot of debate on a variety of issues regarding culture and governance, and the reason for that is that the extensive RSS “family” has a kind of representation from all parts of society. And it has to reconcile all those differences and interests. And the RSS has a presence all over the country now including in the South and the Northeast. Where before it was largely a Hindu, urban, high caste organization, it is less so now.
That is also indicated in the instance of former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee deciding to speak at an RSS gathering. Mukherjee has had fairly good relations with several people in the BJP. So it’s not a stark change of view for him. And the RSS has become more part of the mainstream at least in the thinking of some. His speaking there is yet another step toward ‘normalization’ of RSS. Besides, the talk Mukherjee gave there was interesting in that it called for inclusiveness — and the RSS listened. But I think personally his visit to Nagpur has been blown out of proportion.
Much of the idea of the RSS controlling the BJP is a misconception. It doesn’t want to be the BJP. It sees its role as morally superior to that of the BJP and continues to view politics, while necessary in a democratic system, as morally compromising.