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HINDU NATIONALISM AND THE EVOLUTION OF CONTEMPORARY INDIAN SECURITY: Portents of Power by Chris Ogden. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2014.

THE ways that a government sets the tone for its foreign policy and security requirements tangibly impacts its country’s dealings with the world. But the points at which requirements for security, international prowess, and regional domination are seen to have been achieved very rarely form the basis of universal consensus. These questions, moreover, depend on any number of domestic, political, economic or even social factors. In order to understand the debates around territorial security and the objectives of foreign policy in India, we must think about how their definitions were shaped in the first place, how they were pursued, and how they were never predetermined or self-evident. Most scholars would agree that there is urgent need of examining these further. A welcome development is a recent series of volumes brought out by OUP on the study of South Asia’s international relations, which examine these questions in fuller, more historicized, and rigorous detail.

Hindu Nationalism and the Evolution of Contemporary Indian Security by Chris Ogden examines the impact of the governments led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from 1998-2004 on the discussion about India’s international requirements, and the shaping of its foreign policy. Ogden begins with the premise that the ideological direction of the government of the day is critical in setting the tone for its foreign policy agenda, and is a key determinant of how India behaves on the international stage. The book thus offers a detailed theoretical apparatus for us to understand the foreign policy of the BJP-led NDA from 1998-2004 and offers a helpful set of conceptual tools to analyze how the BJP visualized India’s positioning in international affairs. Furthermore, it helps shift our understanding of its foreign policy as a product of an obscurantist or irrational set of beliefs based only on cultural nationalism, to a systematic explanation about the economic, political or sociological, logic behind their initiatives.

Ogden highlights how the BJP’s and BJS’s (Bharatiya Jan Sangh) perception of themselves as the opposition to the Congress reinforced their belief as being the articulators of a more hardline foreign policy, ‘contrary to the Congress’s perceived effeminate idealism and morality.’ He shows how a narrative of Hindu nationalism was consistently woven into its domestic and foreign policy perspectives. Yet, for all the rhetoric around tougher postures in the neighbourhood and an aggressive belief in cultural nationalism, the shifts in foreign policy between Congress and the BJP were not in fact very radical, and Ogden is meticulous in highlighting how they can be seen on a continuum rather than a see-saw. Nonetheless, he argues, the BJP’s foreign policies ‘added a new element of proactiveness, realism and realpolitik to India’s normative security practice...’ (p. 147). Furthermore, its approaches to liberalisation and economic diplomacy were more nimble, and also self-consciously linked to the goal of making India into a global power: a connection that had not thus far been actively voiced as an area of major concern. This period also served to consolidate the space for a mainstream political party looking to identify with a ‘modernising, globalizing, and media dominated middle class...’ (p. 96). This space remained a highly active one, even after their government left office, and was eventually tapped into by most mainstream parties. Thus, Ogden’s concern is with how a political party (in this case the BJP) uses its time in government to shape and expand the national debate about the country’s international positioning, and how these spaces can subsequently be used to fashion the ensuing foreign policy.

Ogden persuasively outlines that a significant impact of the BJP’s term in office was the reworking of conventional wisdom about how India’s security objectives could be met, including by forging closer ties with Israel, a stronger strategic partnership with the United States, and the pursuit of an aggressive posture on nuclearization. Notably, these initiatives remained in the shaping of subsequent foreign policy even after the NDA’s term in office. He also shows how a set of techniques for the pursuit of various political and foreign policy objectives then bleed across party lines and become part of the ‘new’ received wisdom about the strategic interests of the state. Ogden himself explains this in terms of how most foreign policy builds upon ‘inherited wisdom’ that all governments choose to pursue when they come to power, even having displaced those of a different ideological perspective.

But what this book could have considered even further is the extent to which rhetoric and positioning on various foreign policy issues have frequently been borrowed from, or complement, views taken by a wide variety of actors, who may or may not be ideologically congruent. To use his phrase, the ‘perceptual norms for India’s security identity’, from which the crafting and understanding a state’s foreign policy are drawn, may be expanded even further. One such example is the role of the media, which while frequently adopting highly jingoistic positions, is not necessarily an advocate for a particular government, or even its foreign policy initiatives. How this impacts on policy making may be an interesting aspect to further bolster Ogden’s own arguments.

Second, ideologies of political parties are not cast in stone either, and have waned and shifted over the decades. Ogden himself points out how a great deal of Nehru’s foreign policy – with regard to Pakistan, or a robust assertion of autonomy in international affairs, and an ultimately pragmatic engagement with the two power blocs – was continued by successive governments. Although this book does provide a convincing start to this argument, it would nonetheless be misleading to draw out too neatly the correlations between a political ideology – often vastly embellished by rhetorical flourish, rather than being a core set of principles that actually directs all action – and the corresponding approach to foreign policy. The point at which only a commitment to ideology, rather than a conjunction of other ‘external’, is a determining factor in guiding action in foreign policy is rarely demonstrated in pristine form. When given the choice, for instance, the Congress seemed equally eager to embrace the development of India’s nuclear technology with the United States as the BJP would have done.

Finally, it is also necessary to remain cautious about adopting the assumptions about a ‘basic’ or ‘inbuilt’ set of foreign policy principles that the BJP, or for that matter the Congress, then deviated from, or added to. According to Ogden, the premise for India’s early foreign policy, hit upon by the Congress leadership in the aftermath of gaining independence, was based on beliefs in strong sovereignty and territorial integrity, economic self-reliance, and a strong rooted-ness in a secular polity partially because of the traumas inflicted by the Partition. The resulting foreign policy was consistently and firmly unaligned as the ‘legacies of colonialism (and Partition) played into this logic by instilling an inherent distrust of any outside forces...’ (p. 37). It also favoured disarmament, strong ties with Arab countries, and an approach of friendly relations towards all. These, argues Ogden, were the basic set of principles that were refined or rearranged because of the conjunctions between ideology and international structures when the BJP was in power. But this deserves to be problematized further, since a great deal of historical research into Nehru’s foreign policy shows that assumptions about the requirements for India’s external interests ‘in the beginning’ did not automatically fall into place. Indeed, any number of impassioned arguments about these very issues between Nehru and powerful members of his cabinet tells us that these truths were not, as it were, self-evident. A number of his colleagues, for instance, frequently criticized policies that sought to distance India from the United States, or even a very strict adherence to non alignment. A ‘commonsensical’ point of beginning was not universally agreed upon, which could then be refined by opposition parties. It is important, therefore, to examine an even fuller set of reasons behind the continuance of a set of axioms that defined what constituted India’s international interests, in addition to studying how they were built upon subsequently.

Pallavi Raghavan

Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


SHAPING THE EMERGING WORLD: India and the Multilateral Order edited by Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Bruce Jones. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 2013.

INDIA’S multilateral character and behaviour is receiving greater scrutiny as its economic and geopolitical clout ascends. A veritable flood of books expounding on India’s global role now adorn bookshelves, amongst which this particular volume edited by three noteworthy scholars maps India’s recent trysts with the multilateral order in an effort to explain whether India can emerge as ‘one of the shapers of the emerging world order.’ The Introduction presents a broad overview of India’s current multilateral trajectory, its opportunities and constraints, and delineates a framework to record and assess India’s multilateral conduct before ending with a summary view of the domestic and international forces affecting India’s multilateral role. Part II covers Indian perspectives on multilateralism by surveying the dynamics of India’s multilateral conduct. Part III looks at the domestic and regional drivers of Indian multilateralism, giving coverage to some salient economic and political factors shaping and, importantly, inhibiting her multilateral impulses. And finally, part IV furnishes us with a comprehensive overview of India’s multilateral behaviour on areas like climate change, disarmament, humanitarian intervention, maritime governance, resource and cyber security; its approach within the UN as a peacekeeper, in the UN Security Council and the IFIs; and its outlook toward developing forms of international collective action including South-South (BRICS, IBSA), plurilateral mechanisms (G-20) and other issue based formations (BASIC).

Needless to say, the scope of the volume and the range covered is impressive; contributors to the volume map India’s positions on a litany of issues and institutions across the multilateral landscape. On the whole, the reader points to an India that is, by and large, hesitant vis-ŕ-vis multilateral diplomacy. On the one hand, India is generally wary of greater engagement, evincing ambivalence toward international norms and rules that clash against its interests. Despite these misgivings, on the other hand, India finds value in using these very constraints to restrain major powers from acting against its interests. Occasionally it has punched above its weight and sought greater recognition at the high tables of international politics, including the UN Security Council. But more often India has opted to fashion an arms length relationship with the multilateral order evidenced by its resistance to international agreements in areas like international trade, climate change, international arms control and disarmament. Normatively, India straddles a middle path. In principle, New Delhi is committed to advancing international human rights, preventing genocide and protecting citizens against variant threats; but in practice, serious reservations exist when having to deal with these problems.

Various contributors effectively capture this marked ambivalence by examining India’s positions and behaviour across issue areas. Going further, the volume treads new ground by expanding the canvas to include other areas like cyber security, maritime diplomacy, and international financial cooperation, deftly elucidating why these issues matter and India’s approach in tackling these complex challenges. All three issues have attained prominence in recent years given their importance to the smooth functioning of the global economy and national security. Also, there is a chapter that tackles India’s food-energy-water challenge as a unifying one, a defining feature of global challenges that are often interconnected and require policies that reflect internal coherence. Historically, India has been good at defending its interests within single issue domains, but going ahead it needs to anticipate and understand how changes in one area affect and influence other issues. In addition, the final chapter covers the reasoning behind India’s growing participation in several plurilateral and minilateral groupings like the G-20, BRICS, IBSA and BASIC. The authors argue that even as it is unclear if India’s interests are advanced through greater involvement with these groupings, despite their organizing rationales, they nevertheless do herald the reality of a world order that is far more fissiparous and diffuse. No doubt, future accounts on Indian multilateralism will consider the scope and seriousness of these emergent groupings as they evolve. By expanding our understanding of these issues, the volume renders a valuable service.

But the range and ambition is marred by some problems that undercut the volume’s utility as a reliable primer on Indian multilateralism. The first problem is foundational. Some of the core assumptions that underpin the volume are problematic leading to claims that do not sufficiently hold up. The volume assumes that India’s stellar growth of the past two decades has closed the purported gap between New Delhi and the multilateral system, and this budding convergence engenders an India that has ‘critical interests’ in nearly every major multilateral regime. Out of this convergence, then, results an impulse to shoulder a greater burden in the provision of global public goods and what prevents this from being realized are a spate of deficits – institutional, geopolitical and domestic – that act as putative roadblocks. However, the notion that India has critical interests across the multilateral milieu, and has more to gain by engaging with and influencing the multilateral order, is a contestable claim. Notwithstanding its rising power, India remains a poor country littered with myriad development deficits; thus its engagement remains contingent on improving the human condition of her citizens and the processes through which domestic politics and citizens determine that trajectory. At places, though the volume does make this reality apparent, there nevertheless exists a normative disposition toward greater cooperation that needs to be questioned.

The second problem is analytical. Given the underlying premise, the volume charts India’s multilateral behaviour on a continuum marked by attitudinal differences toward existing rules; they could, thus, function as rule-makers, rule-takers, rule-shapers or rule-breakers. Despite providing a metric, the authors do not discuss how these different metrics are formed or what factors or variables contribute to attitudes toward prevailing rules. Moreover, existing rules are essentialized without sufficiently examining their innate nature, writ, and legitimacy. Rules are a consequence of power politics, reflective of the interests and priorities of those with power to uphold the system. As a result, using these rules as a benchmark to measure and assess the behaviour of other countries is bound to generate accounts that are biased. A sound and more grounded analytic base could have greatly assisted given the wide-ranging nature of the volume, providing authors a compass to gather insights on the issues covered.

And finally, more emphasis of the domestic front, especially the intricacies of politics, could have strengthened the volume. To be sure, the introduction and few chapters state and cover the importance of domestic factors in the determination of international policy stances, but a more rigorous conceptualization of the domestic-international linkage is lacking. If this component becomes sufficiently theorized, it has the potential to robustly track and explicate India’s multilateral postures across a series of issues. Some scholars have made inroads on this front. Kishore Dash demonstrates how strong political leadership enabled India to elicit more amenable outcomes when negotiating with the IMF. Rob Jenkins and Jason Kirk examine how developments in Indian federalism are affecting India’s relationship with the World Trade Organization and the World Bank and vice-versa. As states clamour for more power and authority within the Indian polity, the multilateral agenda stands to get further entangled with Indian politics. Moreover, the burgeoning presence of other interest groups like the foreign diaspora, media groups, business lobbies and think tanks within the Indian policy space provides scholars possibilities to probe their role and influence.

A few other blind spots exist. Despite its expansive range, the volume does not cover India’s role in global trade. Neither is there any coverage on India’s role in shaping norms of global development and international development assistance. This is an area where India has contributed since the early 1950s given its role as a leading recipient of overseas development assistance. As India grows into its role as a donor, it will become worthwhile to consider the norms that govern their development assistance and the modes through which they are channelled. International public health also does not feature in the reader. Finally, the volume could have benefited from a concluding chapter connecting the various strands discussed and sketching a research agenda for future scholars to pursue given the paucity of work on Indian multilateralism.

In sum, it appears that the volume conceived as a mapping exercise fulfils that objective admirably by marking India’s imprint across a vast multilateral terrain. But ultimately, for some of the reasons stated above, it leaves us asking for more.

Karthik Nachiappan

PhD candidate, Kings India Institute,

Kings College London