international analysis and commentary

The age after ideology – India under Modi


In October, little noticed by journalists in India and abroad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of India’s ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that it was celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the coronation of King Rajendra I of the Chola dynasty, one of the greatest maritime trading powers in the history of Indian kingdoms. Rajendra I ruled between 1012 and 1044 CE and built trade networks across Southeast Asia. This was a small but important sign of the ambitions of the RSS, to which Narendra Modi and his home, defense and finance ministers are affiliated.

The celebration of the reign of Rajendra I harks back to the period in Indian history which is commonly known as the “Golden Age” (between the 4th and 6th centuries CE), when India was one of the wealthiest nations on earth. A lot of that wealth came from its trading and manufacturing prowess – this was when Pliny The Elder complained that to buy silks and spices from India Rome was emptying its empire’s treasury, and the British economist Angus Madisson calculated that India had about a fifth of the world’s GDP. The “Make in India” slogan of Prime Minister Modi attempts to recapture and reinvent that legacy.

In the last six months, this renewed ambition has found a voice in the deals that India has pursued around the world – whether it is the $35 billion investment commitment obtained by Japan or the deal to buy uranium from Australia despite India not being a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or the behind-the-scenes settlement between the Modi government and the Obama administration of a long standing World Trade Organization dispute. This marks the end of India’s era of non-alignment, overt or covert, which has stretched from independence in 1947 to Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh. India is entering a new era of “pole-alignment”, a Modi-driven foreign policy that seeks to put the country at the heart of the international power structure, an incessant hunt for a prominent position in the world. There is an overwhelming sense within the government and the RSS that the country has punched well below its weight in world affairs for six decades – both economically and culturally. At the heart of this idea is the feeling that India has always negotiated its place in the world from a position of weakness. At first glance this might sound a bit Putinesque but isn’t. Territorial ambition plays little role in this. Except for seeking to settle its border disputes with China and Pakistan on equitable terms, India does not have an expansionist motive. The drive here is almost entirely economic.

Strengthened by a surging economy, which inspires the “golden bird” metaphor that Modi uses frequently to talk about the country’s glorious past, India will seek wealth where it finds it. This government believes that even its security concerns are deeply interlinked to its ability to generate cash and therefore ensure – for instance in its neighborhood – better bilateral security ties for itself. For years India has worried about the “string of pearls” strategy by China to surround it with countries where the Chinese have inordinate influence. Now that concern has increased another notch with the $16 billion “new Silk Road” project. With it, the Chinese aim to reinvent the old Silk Road joining mainland China to Europe across Russia and Central Asia. In order to counter this, there is talk among Indian leaders of an Indian Arc of Pluralism to connect Hindu, Christian, Buddhist (and the one Jewish) majority nations across the world, reinforcing their cultural commonalities against a resurgent militant Islam. But both Modi and the RSS know that this cannot happen without serious economic might.

A case in point is Bhutan and Nepal where India is working to halt China’s advance, for example by building several hydro-power projects, the Supreme Court of Bhutan, and a 200-bed trauma centre and an advanced light helicopter for Nepal. In Sri Lanka, where Chinese money and influence grows every year and is shoring up large, strategic parts of the island’s infrastructure, Indian influence needs to be backed by serious financial heft as the world’s third largest economy on purchasing power parity (PPP) terms.

The United States, which will become the world’s largest oil exporting nation in 2015, surpassing even Saudi Arabia, is another major cornerstone of this strategy – especially if a Republican president were to take over the White House in 2016. Modi’s decision not to attend the November meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group of nations on the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping – in spite of years of Indian efforts to join APEC – is significant and should be seen in this light, as it comes at a time when America is trying its best to negate the idea of a Chinese-promoted FTAAP (Asia Pacific Free Trade Area) and instead push its own Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which happens to exclude China.

The best way to understand India under Modi is to look at the fact that both economic liberalization and the idea of a post non-alignment regime began under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who put his prime ministership at stake to push the civil nuclear deal with the George W. Bush White House. Now Modi is likely to take both policies to their logical transformative conclusion. Today’s New Delhi is moving toward an era where even the last shreds of ideology will be shed in favor of pure pragmatism and the pursuit of economic success and political influence. In that order.