How Modi is changing Indian diplomacy

Kira Huju investigates how Hindu nationalist ideals are being entrenched in the Indian Foreign Service

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Stands at a podium and addresses the COP26 conference.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the Innovation event at COP26. Photo taken the at the SEC, Glasgow on the 2nd of November 2021 by Karwai Tang/ UK Government and accessed via flickr.

Since his election as Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi, of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been transforming how India sees itself and its global role. These changes have drastically impacted the functioning of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), whose diplomats represent a changing India in the world.

Individual members of the small IFS play an outsized role in Indian foreign-policy making. As such, if the character of the Service is changing, this will alter the diplomatic identity and behaviour of India as a major rising power. The changes also reflect a striking tactical trend across the postcolonial world: populists appropriate anti-imperial language traditionally used by left-wing liberation movements to advance conservative, nationalist ends.

Reinventing a diplomatic identity

Modi’s time in office has involved an attempted revision of India’s global identity. Indian diplomatic tradition has stood in the shadow of its iconic first Prime Minister for much of its post-colonial existence. Jawaharlal Nehru (1947–1964) propagated an ‘internationalist nationalism’: secular, in solidarity with the postcolonial, Non-Aligned world, and fiercely invested in democratizing an international order recovering from the indignities of colonialism.

By contrast, Hindutva — the predominant expression of Hindu nationalism — perceives both foreign influences and internal others like India’s Muslim minority as cultural threats. Instead of a secular democracy, it offers a political investment in civilizational greatness and Hindu revivalism. Much as Nehru’s post-colonial nationalism had profound implications for Indian diplomacy, so too is Modi’s Hindu nationalism intimately tied to India’s diplomatic strategy. In the phrasing of a devoted multilateralist officer who lived through Modi’s ascent: ‘If India looks narrowly at itself, it will look narrowly at the world’.

In the diplomatic everyday, Hindutva influences diplomatic discourse, protocol, and the very medium of communication. The Hindutva approach involves, in the words of one senior Ambassador who served under the first Modi government, ‘going back to more quote-unquote “Indian” aspects’ of diplomacy. This entails a reassertion of India’s civilizational identity, expressed in annual diplomatic practices like the celebration of Kumbh Mela, a major religious festival.

Additionally, there has been a proliferation of Hindu events held at or sponsored by Indian embassies, including those organized by the paramilitary Hindutva organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). While this has been followed by a backlash from the religious minorities and secular-minded Hindus of the IFS, it nonetheless signals a decisive break with the tolerant traditions of a traditionally relatively liberal IFS.

There is also an aggressive push to marginalize English in diplomatic communications, in favour of Hindi. Traditionally, English has been one of the sharpest assets of India’s eloquent diplomats. India’s sway over language and agenda-setting at the UN on issues from conflict mediation to international development has granted it more global influence than its hard power might suggest. For all the talk of Modi as the quintessential pragmatist, his disapproval of officials using English to maximal diplomatic effect betrays a cultural-linguistic preference for Hindi as the ‘authentically’ Indian idiom over English as a tainted language of the foreigner.

A sociological lens on diplomatic elites

Hindutva represents not only an ideological departure from traditional Indian diplomacy but also a sociological one. The traditional elites of the IFS represent precisely the kind of cosmopolitan, secular, westernized India that Hindutva disdains. Historically, the IFS has been the domain of English-speaking, upper-caste, upper-class men from select families, with degrees from Oxbridge and Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College. Despite a nominal ‘democratization’ in cadre intake since the 1980s, IFS culture and top posts remain dominated by this exclusive cosmopolitan elite.

By contrast, Hindutva offers status for diplomats who never fit the Anglophone, secular fold. Their embrace of Hindutva reflects not only an ideological preference but a social resentment of the established elite, who has preserved power for itself for most of India’s postcolonial existence.

The political strategy for discrediting this cosmopolitan elite should concern those who — rightly — call for a ‘decolonization’ of international relations. Mimicking the anti-colonial language usually reserved for left-wing liberation movements, Hindutva advocates portray their project as a democratization of a once exclusive club — a delayed post-colonial liberation which replaces an unrepresentative, westernized interpreter class with an ‘authentic’ diplomatic elite, conversant in Hindi and Hinduism. The moulding of the IFS to fit Hindutva ideals is not presented as an anti-pluralist move, in the traditional populist fashion, but rather as an anti-elite move which seeks to champion true postcoloniality and pluralism.

Conclusion

This framing fuels the anxiety of the established diplomatic elite about their social status. As a result, the adoption of nationalist norms is not only slowed by ideological disagreement between diplomats and the government but also by the governments’ perceived invalidation of the diplomats’ social status. As the political legacy of an internationalist India is fracturing, so too are the social ideals which once legitimized the dominance of an elite-educated, Anglophone class of Indians as its diplomatic representatives. That this is done by a nationalist, populist government in the name of anti-imperialism and pluralism forces us to sharpen the language we use and the political strategies we employ to ‘decolonize’ diplomatic institutions and global politics.

Kira Huju is a Departmental Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

Her article ‘Saffronizing diplomacy: the Indian Foreign Service under Hindu nationalist rule’ was published in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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