Why Is the Party of 'Aspiration' Unable to Sell India’s Dreams Abroad?

There is a deep fault-line between the world as the RSS-BJP sees it, and the world as India, a nation-state, sees it.

Three separate but recent events reflect the growing strain between what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) want for India, and what India wants from the world.

The first concerns Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP spokesperson, who a few months ago started marketing T-shirts that depicted Farooq Dar tied to an Indian Army jeep by Major Leetul Gogoi, ostensibly to shield himself from stone-pelters in Srinagar. Dar was reportedly on his way to visit a relative after casting his vote for the Lok Sabha seat from the constituency, when Major Gogoi caught and paraded him through the area.

The second episode involves Manish Chandela, a BJP “youth” leader, claiming on Twitter that he was responsible, with others, for setting fire on April 15, 2018 to the Rohingya refugee camp in Kalindi Kunj, New Delhi. His now-deleted tweet is being investigated by Delhi Police after Chandela declared, “we burnt the houses of Rohingya refugees” on the same day the camp burnt to the ground.

The last of these instances relates, surprisingly, to statements made in June and July by India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York criticising early drafts of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). The GCM, a non-binding document covering “all aspects of international migration”, was finalised last week, and secured the signatures of all countries but the US. Indian negotiators complained previous versions of the document conflated the issues of “migrants” and “refugees”, and they were to be governed by distinct legal regimes. Disaster and climate-induced displacement had no place in the GCM, our statements read, and “its [draft] text [devoted] disproportionate focus to the situation relating to irregular and illegal migrants”. Our mission, no doubt acting on instructions from New Delhi on an important negotiation, was ultimately concerned the “negative narrative” around irregular and illegal migration threatened to upstage progress made by GCM drafts on “regular migrants”.

Rohingya refugees in Jammu. Credit: Raqib Hameed Naik

Rohingya refugees in Jammu. Credit: Raqib Hameed Naik

Taken together, these episodes reveal key attitudes within the BJP-led government at the Centre, that are difficult to reconcile with India’s foreign policy. Tajinder Bagga’s T-shirts and Manish Chandela’s tweets may generate righteous indignation among ordinary Indians, but to karyakartas, they reflect a shrewd marshalling of everyday bigotry against Muslims into a potent political sentiment. There’s only one problem: the same mileage that accrues from such displays of xenophobic pride can be used by others against India in international forums. All it takes for a too-clever-by-half diplomat from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, a special rapporteur on human rights, or a prickly campaigner from an NGO is to cite these actions by India’s ruling party officials as proof the country is no longer safe for minorities, or a healthy democracy.

International opprobrium the BJP courts for India on account of its karyakartas is hardly of immaterial consequence. Our missions abroad rely on India’s goodwill to win elections to international courts, tribunals, ad hoc bodies and councils; convince our interlocutors to support our immediate concerns; push for broader political projects like a permanent seat or reform of the UN Security Council; and shield (or expose, where needed) our partners in the neighbourhood from international criticism that may close the door for negotiated political solutions. For a country that does not yet have the economic or military clout to drive decisions that concern its interests, or those affecting the region, India relies on its representation in such institutions to persuade, propose, cajole or complain. If you are not at the table, as the saying goes, you end up on the menu. In addition to chipping away at India’s goodwill, these actions or claims fall of half a dozen international rules or conventions. The BJP’s foot soldiers threaten to invite criticism and attention to domestic issues that successive governments have tried to limit. The UN Human Rights Commission’s report on Kashmir – however procedurally deficient or improper it is – was prompted by the government’s heavy-handedness in dealing with the crisis, but its cause would certainly have been helped by high-profile incidents like those of Bagga. One can now also order t-shirts praising the “surgical strikes” – a covert action of dubious legality – from the business that the BJP spokesperson is involved with.

Indeed, if matters continue as usual, this government may have to weather opportunistic efforts to get the topic of Kashmir back on to the UN Security Council’s agenda, decades after it left the horseshoe table. Similarly, Chandela’s claims undermine India’s chances to be part, as an honest broker, of any political or humanitarian solution to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. After all, if the BJP proudly claims to subject the Rohingya in India to violence, how can it address their repatriation and peaceful resettlement with a straight face? This in turn, affects the country’s security interests, to say the least.

What is one to make of the statements on the GCM from our normally sanguine mission in New York? A charitable explanation is that our negotiators tried to second guess their political masters in the capital, and realised the instrument’s focus on irregular and illegal migration would never fly with the BJP, especially since the party itself has harvested the problem of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants for political ends. The Indian delegation argued the principle of non-refoulement – prohibiting the forcible return of refugees by states – could not apply to a compact on migration, mirroring the argument by the Centre in its affidavit to the Supreme Court on the Rohingya issue. India may not be a party to the Refugee Convention, but there is no doubt that non-refoulement is today an accepted principle of customary international law. It is absurd to claim that the inclusion of the principle – which as our statements themselves acknowledge, apply to a specific context – dilutes an agreement on “regular migration”.

The argument that developing countries like India may have to shoulder greater economic burden because of climate-related displacement also does not hold water, because the GCM is a norm-setting instrument that does not generate legal obligations. What our diplomats were attempting, then, was to maximise political autonomy in determining policies around asylum and refugee status. This is a fair objective, given that “irregular” migration comes with its own set of security challenges. But in its attempt to toe the BJP’s line, Indian diplomacy watered down the objectives of the GCM and ironically, bit its own tail. It is in India’s interests that advanced economies create a system of rights and obligations for irregular migrants, that is first embraced internationally and then internalised domestically. Only a concerted multilateral effort can stem the tide of racism and xenophobia that now surges in many parts of Europe and North America. (Hungary, in the news for its poor treatment of immigrants, became the first country to withdraw from the Compact, a week after it was finalised).

File photo of Sushma Swaraj with Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter/Sushma Swaraj

File photo of Sushma Swaraj with Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, in New Delhi. Credit: Twitter/Sushma Swaraj

The GCM would have been a good start, and any attempt to moderate such trends would invariably have benefited Indian immigrants too – after all, racism makes no distinction between the legal status of a refugee or a “regular” migrant. That the Donald Trump administration stayed away from the instrument should be revealing of its plans for stirring up the immigration debate in the US. Faced with increasing incidents of Indian students in the US, Australia and elsewhere being put in harm’s way, New Delhi should have been more welcoming of the GCM’s early drafts. Having opposed it, not only did the government make our expatriates more insecure, but left the world thinking that India, after having milked the benefits of international migration for the most part of the 20th century, had now turned its back on others. We were no longer concerned about humanitarian considerations, but H1B visas.

Do the BJP and Congress see the world differently?

This lack of understanding of the consequences of BJP actions for India abroad suggest there is a deep fault-line between the world as the RSS-BJP – for all intents and purposes, a seamless political outfit – sees it, and the world as India, a nation-state, sees it. The pace of international politics does not often permit a student of Indian diplomacy to take the long view of day-to-day developments, let alone theorise about them. Still, it is worth interrogating whether the stated goals of India’s foreign policy, which were born out of a specific event and moment in history, are fundamentally at odds with that of the RSS or the BJP, which shares no ideological or intellectual lineage with the state.

On the face of it, this is not a problem. The goals of our foreign policy may well have changed substantially since 1947. What’s more, to claim that only the Indian National Congress or other organisations that steered the freedom struggle can be the inheritors of India’s political legacy is highly problematic and exclusionary. The contemporary rise of the Sangh owes a great deal to its resistance of the Emergency, a fact that few can deny. But as far as foreign policy is concerned, no political party can claim to change the external events that shape India’s economic or strategic objectives, because they happen on account of factors mostly beyond her control. The most able administrator in India cannot hope to advance its economy unless a constellation of internal and external factors come together in the country’s favour.

The Congress, which has incubated – and on one major occasion, stalled – the maturation of Indian democracy for the lion’s share of the last 71 years sees its foreign policy as a natural response to the country’s internal needs. These specific needs may vary from time to time, but the Congress has no appetite to re-engineer the broad social, political, legal, demographic or cultural make-up of the country for three reasons. First, it has already pursued such engineering by successfully co-creating a constitution that frames the social contract between state and citizen. The Congress knows it can never hope to re-create or lead that process in the future. Second, by helping create legal and political institutions that govern this social contract, the party has a head start in understanding their possibilities and limits, more than any other party when it comes to power. And finally, the Congress is genuinely invested in the success of the constitution for purely political reasons, because the working of the constitution determines the successful legacy of the Congress.

The RSS and BJP, on the other hand, are not invested in either “constitutional” documents or moments in India’s historical timeline. On both occasions it came to power, the BJP has made no bones about its desire to amend the constitution, or review its “working”. When the RSS-BJP, through its swayamsevaks and karyakartas, is working assiduously to change the political and social milieu of the country, can it accurately represent Indian interests – as they currently are – abroad? The three instances mentioned at the start suggest the BJP’s aspirations for India, and India’s aspirations for its place in the community of states not only clash but may be irreconcilable.

Agnes Callard
Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming
Oxford University Press, 2018

The BJP bills itself as a party of “aspiration”, claiming, through the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its majority in the Lok Sabha, to be the custodian of the dreams of millions of Indians seeking upward mobility and prosperity. The electorate will judge this claim in 2019. But even if one were to acknowledge Modi’s grand claims of introducing bullet trains or heralding digital revolutions in India, do they really represent the BJP’s aspirations for the country? A new book by Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, shines light on the process of “aspiration” — which she terms as the “rational acquisition of values” — and distinguishes it from “ambition”, or the individual’s pursuit for material, intellectual or spiritual gains. Her book of the same title, published by Oxford University Press, offers valuable insight on how individuals begin to desire new values completely alien to them, often contradicting those they currently possess and hold dear. The process of acquiring these new values – for example, a better appreciation of music, empathy towards others of a different religion, wanting to care for the physical well-being of others – could be painful, but is ultimately transformative because it is borne by the conscious choices of the individual in question. The pursuit of milestones or material gains, on the other hand, is “ambition”, which Callard argues, does not tell a person “why she is doing what she is doing”.

This is not a difference of semantics. The Modi government has offered visions of bullet trains, industrial corridors or mobile phones, all of which are markers of prosperity that every Indian seeks. But they do not represent values that the BJP seeks to pursue for India, but simply gains that Indians know to improve their standards of living. Callard’s distinction is important because any political party seeking votes must offer or promise milestones that voters take to be a sign of their own mobility or aspirational claims. The BJP’s national agenda and India’s own developmental goals – which its foreign policy seeks to facilitate — may well share the same milestones. But this does not mean the state and the political party running the state aspire to the same values, a tension that foreign policy brings out clearly.


But before one pegs Callard’s book and her treatment of “aspiration” to questions of statecraft, a few caveats are in order. It is not my claim that tools of philosophical inquiry can help us better understand international relations. If so, I would be re-committing the original sin of contemporary political science, which today has become so dependent on formulations from micro-economics to explain human activity. Having no previous exposure to the canonical literature on this subject, I can at best argue that the process of value acquisition, as Callard describes it, is useful to segregate the “aspirations” of the BJP and that of the Indian state. The Indian state can conventionally be understood as the vehicle through which citizens express their collective aspiration internationally. The BJP, meanwhile, is a party in a competitive marketplace of political organisations that claims to best make their case.

But what of the state’s – and the BJP’s – own role in shaping the aspirations of Indians? When the question is asked in reverse, answers from IR or comparative politics scholarship has been patchy and seldom satisfactory. It is not an exaggeration to say the birth of the Indian state and the rise of the BJP in 2014 represented moments in Indian history which endowed both entities with powers more than the sum of the individual aspirations of Indians. In other words, they have “aspirations” of their own, which in turn set and shape domestic and foreign policy. I merely propose to highlight, using this book, that both are fundamentally in conflict.

June 27, 1950: The UN Security Council votes on the sanction resolution presented by the US, thus opening the way for unreserved military operations by the 59 UN members in Korea. With the U.S.S.R. absent, and Yugoslavia voting against, the vote was seven to one in favour of the resolution. Egypt and India reserved their vote until reception of instructions of their government. The seven hands in favour of the resolution are shown raised – they stand for China, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Norway, United Kingdom, and the US. Credit: UN Photo/MB

Agnes Callard argues “aspiration” is very much a conscious choice, although we may not immediately identify with those values that we aspire towards. Her framing stands in contrast to the explanations of “akrasia” that abound in philosophy – of human beings being “weak-willed” or acting against their “better judgment”. She also distinguishes the aspirational process from the singular act of decision-making. For instance, if an individual wishes to become a doctor, her decision to attend medical school is doubtless crucial but she is only acting in line with her aspiration to care for the well-being of others. The transformative process is already under way, Callard argues, before she submits her admission forms. What, then, brings an individual in contact with the values she aspires to? Callard concedes this could be her external environment or interactions with a mentor. What matters is the “orchestration of original contact with the values that eventually become objects of aspirational pursuit.” Upon such contact, the individual conceives of “proleptic reasons”, i.e., reasons in anticipation of achieving those values that lead her down specific decisions. There is no reason to believe these decisions will succeed in their aim — going to law school is no guarantee of being a successful lawyer, let alone appreciating the value of the “rule of law”. And since the person herself does not yet fully identify with reasons behind her aspirational pursuit, this process of transformation is hardly a smooth one. But, Callard argues, with each step made towards such an aspirational pursuit, the costs of travelling back become more prohibitive.

If Callard’s scholarship represents the cutting-edge of philosophical inquiry, it is a serious challenge to the now-ascendant thinking in the social sciences that we are less rational in our decision-making than is made out to be. Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and other behavioural economists argue that, when faced with monumental and life-changing choices with little or no parallel to past experience, the human brain triggers certain biases and heuristics which influence our decisions. Even in philosophy, as Callard cites, the discipline tends to support the phenomenon of “drifting”, when our aspiration so clashes with previously held views that we aimlessly hop from decision to decision.

What does India aspire to?

That minor digression aside, “Aspiration” offers a new lens from which to examine India’s external engagement. Long captivated by the freedom movement and the effects of Partition, political scientists and historians have only recently begun to explore the chaotic world India was born into, and the consequences it may have had on the state’s “values”. India’s foreign policy was as much a product of its domestic concerns at the time, as it was of the felt need in New Delhi to respond to a fluid post-war world. India aspired to a higher status – understood as economic or military might – in the international order, sure, but also to attain the best values it embodied.

This was not an easy choice, given that the question as to what we would do with our freedom upon attaining it was far from resolved. With large swathes of the population living in abject poverty, and for whom systemic concerns of governance or foreign policy was perhaps secondary, it may have been easier for the country’s political leadership to address aspirations solely in bread-and-butter terms: increased agricultural output, improved standards of living, widespread industrialisation etc. The list of countries that attained independence in the latter half of the 20th century and pursued precisely this path is long. Instead, India signalled to the world that, although she did not immediately identify with many of the values floating amongst her – having no prior experience as a Westphalian democracy – she aspired to fully embrace them. Some would argue that this “transformative experience”, as Callard describes it, began well before independence and whatever goals or objectives laid out in constitutional documents were simply evidence of such aspiration. But it is really after 1947 that Indian foreign policy comes into its own, as the conscious agent of the country’s aspirations to the world.

India’s aspirations may well have been moulded by her interaction with the trans-Atlantic world, especially in negotiating the Charter of the United Nations before independence. The post-war world itself was aspirational, as it heralded the Atomic Age, whose technological possibilities seemed endless (and frightening). Our Constituent Assembly debates coincided with, and referenced, negotiations at the UN on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which India was an active participant. No doubt these external influences were important in configuring our own social contract.

But to India’s credit, she was able to sift the values that this historical moment offered from the victors of the Second World War who ensured their survival. To paraphrase Callard, India’s aspiration was towards a transformative process and not the actions of her powerful contemporaries.

In the spirit of sovereign autonomy that the Allied Powers fought to preserve, therefore, India did not attend the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951. To India, the Conference – meant to re-establish relations between Japan and the world – produced a treaty that curtailed Tokyo’s independence and subjected it to a military dependency with the United States. Jawaharlal Nehru’s refusal to attend the summit was noted by a stunned U.S. President Harry Truman as the possible result of having conferred with “Uncle Joe (Stalin) and Mousie Dong (Mao Tse-Tung)”.

US President Truman shaking hands with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru upon Nehru’s arrival in the US in October  1949. Nehru is accompanied by Indira Gandhi. To Truman’s left is Vijaylakshmi Pandit, India’s ambassador to the United States at the time. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But during this time, India also creditably helped defuse tensions that threatened to escalate the Korean war into the next World War. When in the fateful month of June 1950, as Soviet-backed North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th Parallel, India held the rotating Presidency of the UN Security Council. Not only did B.N. Rau, our ambassador, permit the South Korean representative to present their case before the UNSC, but India also voted twice in support of using armed force to repeal the North Korean invasion. Yet again, India had helped underscore the principle that lay behind the Security Council’s authority to stabilise the international order, without being swayed by one of its permanent members. (It helped that the USSR was boycotting the Council during this period to protest its refusal to hand over China’s seat to the Communist regime.)

Indeed, non-alignment’s greatest intellectual and political heritage was that it allowed India to aspire to the values that powerful states had crafted, without having to ally with them. The Korean war actually boosted the Indian economy, however briefly, and gave it much-needed foreign exchange from the export of raw materials. But Indian allegiance towards peace was ultimately the correct decision. Years later, during the Suez crisis, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie and Canadian foreign minister Lester Pearson may have been instrumental in conceiving the mechanism of UN Peacekeeping, but the idea would have been impossible to execute without India’s commitment to the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) troops in Egypt. The world today is grateful to India for this contribution. Similarly, it was easy for India to be pulled into the vortex of the trans-Atlantic world soon after independence. Emerging from the sterling area, we had begun to amass dollar debt, which would just as easily have translated into political dependencies with the United States as previously with Britain. In comparison, the volume of commerce with the USSR was trivial.

These decisions were principled, defensible, and eventually successful, because India’s domestic and foreign policy were contiguous. The values of the transformative moment India had been born into had been internalised, and she was helping “lock in” an international system that would enable her realise these aspirational ideals.

In contrast, the Modi government wants nothing to do with what it perceives as “foreign policies of the Congress”, without realising they merely reflected genuine aspirations of the Indian state. Hence, its routine debunking of “non-alignment” and associated principles, without offering a credible alternative or an explanation why the world has so changed that they are no longer relevant. For most of its four years, this government has been incoherent about its strategy of engaging big powers. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the challenge that China’s rise presents to the world, the reality is that the international system has not undergone a radical transformation in the last 70 years. Disparities in power may widen or narrow, but it would not be inaccurate to say the post-war order is more resilient to a great shock now than in the past. India’s interests too have not changed substantially, as the political, social and economic values that it aspires to still remain relevant. Ideally, its foreign policy should reflect those aspirational values, and work to ensure that international instruments that promote the same aspirations, such as the Global Compact on Migration, are strengthened. But RSS-BJP’s attempt to re-configure India’s internal make-up leaves it in no position to defend such interests abroad. It has billed and resisted the “Congress” foreign policy precisely because it is engaged in a political project to change the domestic roots of its longstanding, non-partisan consensus.

Acts that carry consequences for foreign policy like those of Tejinder Bagga and Manish Chandela are – to use Agnes Callard’s phrase – “proleptic”, and in anticipation of a majoritarian and parochial transformation of India. In this sense, the BJP’s karyakartas too share aspirational values. The trend of xenophobic and isolationist tendencies internationally may create yet another global, “constitutional” moment for India’s foreign and domestic policies that vindicate their actions. Fortunately, that moment has yet to pass. Until then, the RSS and BJP will struggle to align their aspirations for India, with what she aspires to be in the world.

Arun Mohan Sukumar is a doctoral candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.