The foreign policymaking process in India has most often been monopolized in a few hands. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964), started the trend of dominating the arena of foreign relations, which continued under other prime ministers, notably Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi. The intention to dominate the process of foreign policy making has often been driven by personal interest, an ambition to become a global leader, and to use foreign policy to reimage among domestic citizens. However, the Indian coalition governments (1989 to 2014) reduced the trend of centralization of the foreign policymaking process to some extent.
Ian Hall shares a view with Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya’s The Making of India’s Foreign Policy: Determinants, Institutions, Processes and Personalities that the personality factor plays a prominent role in the process of foreign policymaking. Hall’s book, Modi and Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy, attempts to examine the pragmatic, personal and realist elements of Modi’s intended efforts to reinvent Indian foreign policy during his first tenure, and its impact at the domestic, regional and international levels.
The book undertakes a novel analysis, consisting of eight chapters that are divided into two parts, in order to understand the supportive elements and complexities associated with Modi’s ambition to reinvent Indian foreign policy. The first part discusses and explains the background of Modi’s attempted reinvention of foreign policy. The second part examines the nature and consequences of Modi’s effort at reinvention drawn from Hindu nationalist thinking.
Hall argues that Modi’s repeated quotations from Hindu nationalist philosophy and the ideas of Vivekananda, and his attendance of religious and cultural programs before and after the general election of 2014, demonstrate that culture, religion and soft power would be central to India’s foreign and security policy. Modi’s promise to bring change to foreign policy was a tactic to highlight that the Jawaharlal Nehru model of foreign and security policy did not bring success. For Modi, the reasons for the failure of Nehru’s foreign policy were Nehru’s commitment to socialism and secularism at home, and activism and non-alignment abroad. Hall explains that by attacking the Nehruvian model, Modi aimed to shift Indian foreign policy from non-alignment and activism to pragmatism and multi-alignment. The Modi government saw partial success in its pragmatic engagement while dealing with major and regional powers, reducing activism in West Asia, and in sidelining the Nehruvian model. The book does not discuss Nehru’s internationalism while analyzing Modi’s intended reinvention of Indian foreign policy, perhaps because both Modi and Nehru relied extensively on ‘Civilisation Ethos’ in the context of promoting soft power.
The reinvention of foreign policy by Modi, Hall explains, was influenced by factors such as personal charisma, character, ambition, style of leadership and governance, and Hindu nationalist ideology. The author offers a thorough discussion of the leading Hindu nationalist thinkers—their view on the state, and security and international affairs—in order to show that Modi’s intention to reinvent foreign policy was not only an individual’s desire but also an ideological demand from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Hall observes that Modi brought many non-governmental agents into his foreign policy such as private think tanks, the Indian diaspora and the RSS, and he compromised on many occasions with Hindu nationalist ideology while balancing between economic liberalization and promotion of ‘swadeshi.’ As an ardent supporter of the promotion of ‘swadeshi,’ the RSS created an organization, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, in 1991 in order to oppose the liberalization of the Indian economy.
One of the major purposes of India’s foreign policy after Modi came to power in May 2014 was to make Modi’s position stronger and more popular in India, and to promote him as an international and transformational leader. Modi’s participation in the World Cultural Summit held on the banks of the river Yamuna in South Delhi in March 2016, his untiring foreign trips, rigorous media coverage, and repeated appearances before the Indian diaspora, were also seen, as Hall argues, as instruments to make Modi’s position even stronger. Hall posits, however, that Modi did less to change the direction of Indian foreign policy than all the drama and noise it generated.
Modi’s adoption of more pragmatic, realist and multi-alignment approaches was aimed at both strengthening India’s position in the global order and using foreign policy for the domestic purpose of strengthening Modi’s position and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s standing in domestic politics. Hall shares a view expressed by Ogden in his article, “Tone Shift: India’s Dominant Foreign Policy Aims Under Modi,” that the Modi government intended to adopt greater pragmatism and nationalist diplomacy in reinventing Indian foreign policy.
In spite of all these intended efforts, Modi did not deviate far from India’s basic foreign policy mainly because of domestic challenges such as the lack of staff and expertise in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), increasing religious intolerance, and the lack of serviceable ideas from Hindu nationalist thought. Hall argues—in line with Sridharan’s 2017 assessment in “Where is India Headed? Possible Future Directions in Indian Foreign Policy,” and Basrur’s 2017 view in “Modi’s Foreign Policy Fundamentals: A Trajectory Unchanged”—that changes in foreign policy under the Modi regime were slow and incremental, built and based on past policies without dramatic breaks and have seen few fundamental changes.
Hall believes that although Modi had clear intention to reinvent Indian foreign policy, it seems that Modi’s aims were much the same as existing foreign policy despite the use of many new words taken from both Hindi and Sanskrit, such as Panchamrita (a term from Hindu religious practice meaning an offering of a mixture of five foods), and the SAGAR initiative (Security and Growth for all the Region). Panchamrit signifies the five themes, or the ‘5 S’ of Modi’s foreign policy—Samman (dignity), Samvad (dialogue and greater engagement), Samridhi (shared prosperity), Suraksha (regional and global security), and Sanskriti (cultural linkage). The SAGAR initiatives aim to deepen economic and security ties with India’s neighbouring countries.
Hall argues that Modi’s effort to liberalize and open the Indian economy, and to improve and strengthen regional connectivity could not bring much success. This was because of India’s nationalist economic approach, the promotion of ‘swadeshi’ by Hindu nationalists, and Modi’s failure in bringing foreign direct investment into the manufacturing sector.
The book explains that the promise of Modi’s ‘5 S’ to improve connectivity was partially successful and it could not become an alternative to counter the influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India’s effort under Modi to improve connectivity came under suspicion when Ram Madhav, an RSS spokesperson, stated in an interview to Al Jazeera in 2015, that ‘Akhand Bharat’ would bring both Pakistan and Bangladesh into one united Indian subcontinent. India’s neighbors such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh viewed such statements as expansionist and evidence of India’s tendency to play the big brother, and it fueled suspicion over participating in India’s strategic initiatives to improve connectivity at the regional level. Hall rightly argues that Modi found himself in a conundrum between his promise to liberalize the Indian economy, to bring in more foreign investments, and Hindu nationalism’s stand on ‘swadeshi’ to protect Indian manufacturers.
Hall’s effort to explain Hindu nationalist thought on international relations underscores the fact that Hindu nationalists understood India’s foreign and international affairs through the prism of the country’s past cultural and religious experiences. Hall traces the origins of Modi’s foreign policy to the thinking of Hindu nationalists such as V.D. Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyay who conceived Indian foreign affairs in quite different ways and made civilization and culture its key components. They criticized western international relations philosophies such as sovereign statehood and democracy for their failure to address existing global problems and to acknowledge an authentic Indian approach.
Hindu nationalist thought prescribes a spiritual path to solve the world’s problems—with India acting as Vishwaguru (World Guru)—and at the same time emphasizes developing military power. Hall argues that since Hindu nationalists’ focus is mainly on internal threats and less on explaining external threats, their approach could not benefit Modi in dealing with the country’s foreign and security engagement, especially with China.
Hall correctly believes that Modi’s push to propagate India as a ‘World Guru’ and the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family)’—which believes that the Vedas offer solutions to most existing problems including climate change and terrorism—sat uneasily with the upsurge of atrocities against the Dalits and communal violence in India, which Modi was slow to condemn.
One major difference between the Modi government and its predecessors, as Hall explains, was Modi’s understanding of the potential value of the foreign policy for domestic electoral purposes. The dependency of Modi more on non-governmental tools—such as the Indian diaspora, party to party meetings, foreign trips of religious leaders and RSS workers for promoting soft power—than on the ministry of external affairs properly, was perhaps to harness foreign policy in different ways. Hall rightly argues that such tactics of Modi created his image as a strong statesman and improved his position in domestic politics which paid him well by putting him back in power in 2019.
The book explores Modi’s stand in dealing with Pakistan and China, especially on the issues of Pulwama and Doklam, and how Modi’s stance in both crises was propagated immensely and justified by the Indian media. These incidents and the extensive media coverage they received, indeed, brought about a new development of the Indian middle class becoming more interested in India’s foreign affairs. The issue of surgical strikes, for example, gained importance during the general election of 2019.
Hall rightly observes that Modi’s effort to improve India’s engagement with the United States enabled Pakistan to improve its strategic ties with Russia. Ignorance of such an emerging nexus between Russia and Pakistan may not be a good strategic choice in the future.
Nonetheless, the book is a little different from general studies of Indian foreign policy as it does not directly focus on India’s conduct of relations with foreign powers. It limits itself to the evolution and consequence of Modi’s intended reinvention of Indian foreign policy by highlighting major Hindu nationalist thought. The book is a significant contribution to the existing literature and can be beneficial for students, research scholars and policymakers in advancing their understanding of Indian foreign policy.
Pramod Kumar is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His primary research interests are Indian foreign policy, energy security, and politics and society of the Baltic States. He was awarded the Erasmus+ Exchange Fellowship for one semester at Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas in Lithuania in 2018.
 Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya, The Making of Indian Foreign Policy: Determinations, Institutions, Processes and Personalities (Bombay: Allied Publishers 1970).
 Chris Ogden, “Tone Shift: India’s Dominant Foreign Policy Aims under Modi,” Indian Politics & Policies 1, no. 1 (2018): 2-23.
 Easwaran Sridharan, “Where is India Headed? Possible Future Directions in Indian Foreign Policy,” International Affairs 93, no. 1 (2017): 51-68; and Rajesh Basrur, “Modi’s Foreign Policy Fundamentals: A Trajectory Unchanged,” International Affairs 93, no. 1 (2017): 7-26.