India’s Narendra Modi Isn’t a Game-Changer

“Howdy, Modi” was just one indication that the prime minister’s foreign policy has more similarities to his rivals’ than differences.

A supporter cheers as Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi speaks in Houston on Sept. 22.
A supporter cheers as Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi speaks in Houston on Sept. 22. Sergio Flores/Getty Images

On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in Houston before a crowd of around 50,000 cheering attendees. If that weren’t enough of a triumph for a foreign leader visiting the United States, U.S. President Donald Trump joined him on stage in Texas.

The fact that the event was titled “Howdy, Modi,” with the spotlight pinned firmly on the prime minister rather than the country he represents—or even on Trump, who loves nothing more than an adoring crowd—is telling. It encapsulates the meteoric rise of a leader who until just five years ago had been banned under the U.S. Congress’ International Religious Freedom Act from setting foot in the United States. His strongman, globe-trotting, leader-hugging image, and his appeals to religious nationalism and populism, all stand in contrast to his rather less colorful political opponent, Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress party.

It is commonplace to argue that the rise of Modi and his party, the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), marks the grim demise of India’s own grand old party, the Congress party; the Nehru-Gandhi family that has led it; and its vision of India as a secular and nonaligned world power. But that isn’t quite right. Even under the BJP, many aspects of Indian foreign policy today still lean on old, institutionalized ideas of India’s role in the world. Beyond that, it is incorrect to think of previous Congress governments as monolithic in their viewpoints and strategies. In turn, it is a mistake to see a dichotomy between the foreign policy vision of India under Congress and India under the BJP today. In many ways, there is much continuity.

As independent India’s first prime minister, Congress party leader Jawaharlal Nehru was also its most powerful. Nehru was not simply a prime minister; when he came to power, he was already a towering figure in India’s nationalist movement, with both national and international name recognition. His standing allowed him to take over the role of India’s foreign minister as well. As the Cold War unfolded, it was clear that Nehru was going to be an agenda-setter whose views would dominate India’s perception of its place in the world for decades to come.

Nehru was first and foremost an anti-colonial nationalist with socialist leanings. Under him, India took the lead in organizing the first-ever Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, a gathering of all of the decolonized and decolonizing nations of the world. At Bandung, the byword of the day was anti-imperialism. That meant a firm opposition to any kind of Western interference in the internal matters of developing countries. And so, the seeds of nonalignment were sewn. Later, as a leader of the nonaligned movement, which was started with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, Nehru stayed adamantly opposed to choosing a superpower side during the Cold War. Nonalignment continued to define India’s positions even after the demise of the Soviet Union.

Despite India’s hostility toward formal alliances and its aversion to any external interference, nonalignment was never a monolithic ideology. It was interpreted in different ways by successive leaders. Nehru, as was shown by Australian National University’s Andrew Kennedy in his book The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru, ambitiously attempted to remake the world and undermine superpower hegemony, but through diplomatic peacemaking and cooperation rather than by force. But another powerful Congress prime minister, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, interpreted nonalignment in more hawkish terms. For her, it was less an ideology than a strategy to expand India’s security. As she argued in an article for Foreign Affairs in 1972, nonalignment was not neutrality or noninvolvement. Rather, it was an assertion of “freedom of judgment and action … [and the] support [of] just causes.” These were not empty words. Under Gandhi’s leadership the previous year, citing both the genocide of Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan instigated by the Pakistani Army and the subsequent flooding of Bengali refugees into India, India fought and decisively won a war against Pakistan. The result was the dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi was to bring his own interpretation to nonalignment. His anti-hegemonic stance included de-emphasizing the Cold War while opposing the economic primacy of the West and championing the reformation of the international economic system. Under his leadership, India initiated economic liberalization, attempted to move away from its arms dependency on the Soviet Union, and took a more conciliatory tone toward the United States.

The advent of BJP governments after Rajiv Gandhi’s rule did not herald a radical shift away from past ideas. Although nonalignment was ostensibly no longer relevant in the post-Cold War world, many of its key tenets remained embedded in Indian foreign policy. Its ideas were highly compatible with the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. Particularly, the notion that it had been foreign domination and exploitation that hurt India in the past remained key, even though Hindu nationalists located the source of that domination not just in British colonialism but also in supposedly foreign Muslim dynasties such as the Mughals, the last major dynasty to rule India before the British.

Even a leader such as Modi, who is known as a champion of Hindu nationalism and has the mandate to effect sweeping change, has found it difficult to entirely reject past ideas. Thus, India continues, for example, to be reluctant to forge close alliances. Modi’s globetrotting and outreach to many countries (in the course of 48 hours at the G-20 summit last month, he held nine bilateral meetings) can, in that sense, be seen as a reaffirmation of India’s commitment to multipolarity on the one hand and as prioritizing bilateral over multilateral ties on the other.

Meanwhile, Modi’s India continues to firmly assert independence in foreign policy even in the face of strengthening partnerships. Although the country has grown closer to the United States, particularly since the landmark Indo-U.S. nuclear dear of 2008, it still concluded a deal to purchase Russian S-400 missiles and declared it would purchase oil from Iran past the United States’ set deadline for it to stop. As Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary, noted in an interview, the United States simply could not expect India to harm its own interests. And for India, diversifying its relations with all powers helps the country stay autonomous enough to deal with challenges as it sees fit.

Such points of continuity do not mean, of course, that Modi’s foreign policy is indistinguishable from those of previous Indian governments. Senior Indian diplomats point out in conversation that the intense emphasis on domestic politics and economic growth is distinctly Modi-style. One diplomat stationed in an important Western country told me that whereas in the past he would have regularly met with his diplomatic counterparts, he was now spending all his time with business leaders. But it would also be a mistake to think of pre-Modi and post-Modi views of India’s role as radically at odds. Thus, the BJP’s replacing of “nonalignment” with “strategic autonomy” indicates less that Modi is a game-changer and more that he is repackaging older ideas.

And that brings us back to the question of whether the Congress party, after two punishing electoral defeats, will revamp its own ideas of India’s global role to compete with Modi and the BJP. Concepts such as nonalignment are publicly condemned by right-wing critics as “sickular”—a contemptuous jab at Nehruvian secularist ideas—and are derided as belonging to a previous era, resulting in, as a senior Congress party politician recently lamented in conversation, an “ideological identity crisis” within the Congress.

Yet, out-Hindu-ing the Hindu nationalist crowd, as many in the Congress party are trying to do, seems like the wrong answer, too. Part of whether Congress is able to recuperate now rests on how dynamic and permutable the party’s lines of power can be. Currently they run right through the Gandhi family. As the same Congress official wryly noted, a “Gandhi-mukht Congress” (Gandhi-free Congress) would mean a “Congress-mukht Bharat” (a Congress-free India).

As the party thinks through its way forward, party leaders in the Congress (and, for that matter, the BJP) would do well to note that the original Nehruvian vision of India, far from being static, was in fact mutable and adaptable for even supposedly oppositional political parties.

Manjari Chatterjee Miller is an associate professor of international relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. She is the author of Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China.

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